LUMBERTON — They arrived Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, filling the Trinity Episcopal Church parking lot with boats on trailers pulled behind sturdy trucks and SUVs.
Members of the Cajun Navy Relief were in Lumberton to wind down its operations in Southeastern North Carolina. As many as 50 volunteers from Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, New York and elsewhere had helped with rescue and relief efforts.
“We worked in Laurinburg, Lumberton, Wilmington, Leland, Arcadia and other places,” said Kimberly McCaskill, communications liaison for the Cajun Navy Relief and twice a flood victim herself. “I was here during Matthew, too.”
McCaskill, who is a registered nurse by profession, is from Louisiana and witnessed the start of the all-volunteer “navy.”
The term Cajun Navy was coined during Hurricane Katrina, when emergency systems became overwhelmed and neighbors in boats started rescuing their neighbors. It was not until major flooding from another Louisiana storm in 2016 that the group became more organized.
“After the 2016 storm, we built the structure and software,” McCaskill said. “There are other groups that call themselves Cajun Navy, but we are a 501c(3).”
McCaskill cautioned donors to be aware of who they donate money to. In Lumberton, Trinity Episcopal Church member Kathy Hansen opened the church and other members brought food.
“They helped me out with a friend who was stranded here,” Hansen said. “I rode with them last. It was very exciting.”
The Cajun Navy Relief is a loose-knit group of volunteers who are professionals and many of them in law enforcement. Below the surface, there is a structure firmly in place.
The group uses a cellphone application called Zello to communicate along many channels. They have a website, Facebook page and other forms of social media.
Cajun Navy Relief screens it volunteers, conducts training and seeks to coordinate with emergency officials at the scene. Local officials are not always able to coordinate with them.
Volunteerism remains a huge factor and is part of their mystique.
“We find volunteers spontaneously, including from Robeson County,” McCaskill said. “They just show up. That’s how we work.”
The reason members of the Cajun Navy say it exists is that rescue and evacuation efforts in past hurricanes and flooding events have been woefully insufficient. However, preparations and execution by emergency officials and workers during Hurricane Florence earned rare praise from this group of the Cajun Navy Relief.
“I worked Hurricane Harvey, and we came here because we thought we could do some good,” said J.R. Hammond, a Nashville, Tenn., resident who grew up in Bladenboro.
“The preparation and response here was well-organized,” Hammond said. “This was not like Harvey; it was a disaster.”
Hammond drove through water to visit his hometown and found things in relatively good shape despite taking a hard hit from Hurricane Florence.
“The downtown is trashed,” Hammond said. “I went by the fire department and saw everybody, my brother included.
“They were really pulling together,” he said. “These small rural communities take care of each other.”
Hammond put a fine point on that statement.
“I want to make sure we don’t forget the small places,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be forgotten. I’m from a small place.”
And that is the mission of the Cajun Navy Relief — to help the people who are left behind in disasters.
Scott Bigelow can be reached by email at [email protected]