Even a week after a deluge put huge chunks of Louisiana and other parts of the South underwater, even after the water levels had begun to recede, it was almost impossible to find someone willing to make the normally hour-and-a-half drive to Baton Rouge from New Orleans. I spent two days trying to bribe cabbies and Uber drivers to take me to the places where the rains had displaced thousands of residents, but couldn't find any takers. That's how I ended up in the back of Jeremy Roussel's pickup truck.
Roussel was making his second trip of the week to Baton Rouge, with his girlfriend Jena Russell and his father David in tow. "I had heard about the flooding, and it wasn't even a question about getting out there to help," said Roussel, who owns a charter fishing company along with a construction company in the New Orleans area. "We just immediately got my boats and drove them up."
Roussel is just one among hundreds of Louisianans who turned themselves into a decentralized volunteer search-and-rescue organization to help residents whose lives have been upended by the massive rains that have turned a sizable portion of the state into a disaster zone. The volunteers have become known as the Cajun Navy—some of them brag that they were "born in the water"—and came out en masse after many became frustrated with what they describe as the government's slow response to the crisis.
"The cops and National Guard—they didn't know what the hell to do," said Roussel, who says that he rescued National Guardsmen from their trucks when they drove too deep in the floodwaters.
Rachel Giror of Morgan City and her husband Troy put their number on Facebook after being fed up with the slow police response. "I took 150 phone calls that day. In less than 24 hours. That's not including text messages," Rachel told me. She didn't wait for long for permission from authorities to get involved. "I said, we're not doing it their way. We went down a street, backed up on someone's driveway, and launched the boats."
"It's a brotherhood, it shows the South really does come together in a time of need," is how John Miller of Rayville described the Cajun Navy. "We care about our brothers and sisters in the South. There were people with paddle canoes with ten cases of water stacked in it."
Roussel doesn't necessarily like to be associated with the group. But his mission is obviously the same as theirs. On the day I was in his truck, he was headed to a village to the southeast of Baton Rouge called Port Vincent. They were equipped with rations to be handed out at the Port Vincent Community Center, and they also wanted to repair the home of a 35-year-old man named Chris Krumholt who single-handedly changed Roussel's perspective on altruism when Roussel and his father met him on their last trip.
"We picked up this guy on the side of the road—I have no clue why he was there—and he just wanted to help. He knew exactly where to go and how to get around when the police had no clue," Roussel said. "I didn't realize until he later pointed it out that we were on the same block of his own house that was flooded."
Even though Krumholt's home had been damaged, he was in good spirits. "I just saw this man jumping in waist-high water, going into people's homes looking to make sure they were alive and safe," Roussel said. "This guy's sacrificing his life and even though he has nothing left, himself."
As we drove off the I-12 onto the state highway and into Port Vincent, there were few signs of the flood. The only evidence was the muddy shoulders and the occasional motorboat docked on the side of the freeway. But as we drove closer, the piles of trash, furniture, and the guts from washed-out houses appeared next to the road.
On Krumholt's street, the floodwaters hadn't completely receded. A trio of Coast Guard members were just leaving after helping him throw out all his waterlogged furniture and electronics. As we approached the door, Krumholt yelled, "Can you do me a favor and wipe your feet before coming in the house? I don't want it to get wet."
Port Vincent is not in a designated flood zone, and like the vast majority of people living in those areas, Krumholt didn't have flood insurance—"I never thought I'd need it," he said. Since the rains came, FEMA estimates that 66,000 have filed for assistance from the federal agency. For now, though, the quickest source of relief seemed to be coming from friends, neighbors, and other good Samaritans.
While Roussel and his father began measuring the home for repairs, Krumholt told me about the things he had lost. Microwaves, sofas, pictures. But the most devastating loss was a stack of letters his mother wrote to him while he was enlisted in the military. He wiped tears from his eyes and choked up as he told me that the letters were found stuck together with no ink on them.
"Memories, you always have 'em," he said