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Why Does America Need the Cajun Navy? – The New Yorker

This winter, I spent time in Denham Springs, Louisiana, at the home of a
woman named Teressa Bell, who is in her seventies and lives with her
daughter Donna. Donna has been a quadriplegic since the age of fifteen, when she was in a car
accident. One morning last August, when a historic
accumulation of rain caused the nearby Amite River to surge, the ground
floor of the Bells’ home filled up with water, nearly to the ceiling, in
the course of an hour. Teressa and her son carried Donna up to the
second floor and laid her at the top of the stairs, on a sheet, where
she laid her head against the floor and watched the water rising, step
by step. She heard the floodwaters pull the refrigerator from the wall
and throw it around the kitchen. A friend of the Bells contacted a
boater named Kevin Lawson, who was out trying to help people, and asked
him to check on the Bells. He arrived, and pulled Donna, wrapped in a
sheet, off the second-floor landing of the house, just as the flood was
on the verge of swallowing it.

Of the hundred and fifty thousand Louisiana homes that were washed out
by the great rains of 2016, the vast majority–eighty-two per cent—were
not insured against floods. The Bells’ home was in this majority. When I
met the family this winter, their house was stripped to the studs, moldy
and uninhabitable, and their damaged belongings were being held in a
little trailer in the driveway. The Bells themselves were living in a
white trailer supplied by FEMA (after storms, the agency deposits them
on the lawns of the flooded, like condolence boxes), which they were
entitled to use for only eighteen months. They did not know what they
would do after FEMA took the trailer back. They had exhausted the
generosity of family and friends, and their house, which represented
much of their savings, was worth much less than it had been—the market
was saturated with similarly damaged properties. They had been rescued, but, like many others in the Baton Rouge area, they were, in deeper
ways, still stranded.

After the floods, the Cajun Navy became heroes in Baton Rouge.
Newspapers celebrated them; they were the grand marshals of local
parades; the lieutenant governor of Louisiana took a special interest in
their project. There were hundreds of families like the Bells, who felt
that they owed their safety not to the distant forces of government but to a
neighbor who had put himself at risk to help them. There was a social
elegance in the idea that working-class families were rescued by
working-class heroes in boats, in episodes that not always, but
sometimes, cut across racial lines. “Floodwaters don’t discriminate,”
was a slogan that circulated after the Baton Rouge floods.

At the time, the Baton Rouge floods seemed like they might trigger a
greater awakening to the chaos of climate change. Now they seem a
prelude to Harvey. In Texas, too, there has been devastation, and then
heroism, and there will be, surely, a longer-gestating devastation to
come. There is a cyclic pattern to the erosion of faith in government,
in which politics saps the state’s capacity to protect people, and so
people put their trust in other institutions (churches; self-organizing volunteer
navies), and are more inclined to support
anti-government politics. The stories of the storm and the navies exist on
a libertarian skeleton. Through them, a particular idea of how society
might be organized is coming into view.

Why Does America Need the Cajun Navy? – The New Yorker

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