The Private 'Cajun Navy' Shows the Glory, and Necessity, of Private Disaster Aid

Hurricane Harvey has made a life-threatening mess too serious to rely on just government-managed aid.


After a natural disaster of the hideous and shocking scope of the floods along the Texas coast this week, government response will never be—can never be—sufficient to people's needs, either for immediate rescue or for long-term rebuilding.

If you don't believe a libertarian on that point, a friend of mine with zero ideological antagonism toward government experienced in volunteer disaster relief in post-Katrina New Orleans and elsewhere stresses to all his curious Facebook followers that government, local or federal, is just not actually equipped to deal with providing all the help people require when storms like this hit, the existence of agencies with names like "Federal Emergency Management Agency" (FEMA) notwithstanding.

Michael Stravato/Polaris/Newscom

FEMA, as Mark Lisheron explained yesterday, brings with it as much or more harassing control and time-and money-wasting bureaucratic bungling as it does actual intelligent, well-managed life-saving aid.

The New Yorker this week shines a light on one of the real solutions in the wake of disaster, one that thankfully doesn't feel obligated to wait for government orders, funding, or control: the Cajun Navy, a private organization out of Louisiana skilled and experienced at boat rescues of people trapped in (or on top of) their homes in a flood.

The Cajun Navy's John Bridgers says modern private technology/communication companies like Facebook make the all-important communication of who is in need of help and where much easier, even as government's 911 is strained beyond its capacities, as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner admitted it was.

Reason's Jesse Walker has reported and argued in the past, the issue isn't just governmental vs. private: even big private bureaucracies such as the Red Cross fall prey to institutional imperatives and the impossibility of accurate and fast-moving local knowledge that make them often inefficient and ineffective.

As Walker wrote in 2014 (though not discussing the Cajun Navy specifically) "such networks [are known] to be more flexible, more capable of adjusting to conditions on the ground, and—when the groups are themselves locally based—more receptive to local knowledge" in delivering needed aid quickly and smartly.

Walker has also importantly reported on the fact that humans in deemed-ungovernable post-disaster situations actually have a greater tendency toward self- and other-aid than toward reduction to some sort of violent and chaotic Hobbesian "state of nature."

The men and woman of the Cajun Navy live out the message of Walker's reporting: the attitude that we must, or can, rely on public bureaucracies in moments of great crisis is insanely unsafe and wildly un-American. As we see so often, Americans inspired not by central commands and government contracts but by the will and desire to help, exist and rise to the occasion.

It is, alas, never enough to either save everyone that needs saving or fully blunt the terrifying damage nature can cause, and no single source of aid will get everything right. But privately organized and funded aid is real, and necessary, and can be as simple and direct as what the Cajun Navy's Bridgers told The New Yorker: "We're all sportsmen around here," he said. "Pretty much every other person has a boat. So we got going."

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  1. “FEMA, as Mark Lisheron explained yesterday, brings with it as much or more harassing control and time-and money-wasting bureaucratic bungling as it does actual intelligent, well-managed life-saving aid.”

    There’s a reason it’s called the Federal Emergency _Management_ Agency and not the Federal Emergency Assistance Agency–it’s there to manage people.

    1. OR – – –
      It is there to manage emergencies caused by the federal government?

    2. It ought to be called the Incumbent Electioneering and Grandstanding Agency.

  2. “FEMA, as Mark Lisheron explained yesterday, brings with it as much or more harassing control and time-and money-wasting bureaucratic bungling as it does actual intelligent, well-managed life-saving aid.”

    You can pretty much replace FEMA with, like, every other, erm, agency and government department.

  3. “FEMA, as Mark Lisheron explained yesterday, brings with it as much or more harassing control and time-and money-wasting bureaucratic bungling as it does actual intelligent, well-managed life-saving aid.”

    Well, of course it’s necessary for the government to insist on control. How else are you going to discourage private efforts? Can’t have people getting the idea that they can manage on their own, you know.

  4. I hope they arrest them for interfering with an official cockup.

  5. This is merely the militia responding to a crisis. Instead of rifles they brought boats.

    1. I am sure they brought guns and boats. Good for them.

      1. This reminds me of Hurricane Sandy, in which the only effective relief work and supplies were not provided by FEMA or the Red Cross, but by anarchists once associated with Occupy Wall Street. (In fact, they fed starving FEMA workers for a couple of days, as FEMA had neglected to supply them with food.)

        The history of Hurricane Katrina is likewise a poster child for anarchist, libertarian, and otherwise private local organization of rescue and relief.

        Logically, every neighborhood should have a locally-organized, locally managed, non-ideological militia, armed not just with machine guns to fend off the UN’s black helicopters, but also rescue and shelter equipment, food suitable for long-term storage, fresh water, fuel, generators, and medical supplies — and some people at least lightly trained to use them. I am afraid, though, that political grandstanding will prevent anything so reasonable from being created.

  6. Cajun Navy… them sounds like some Nazis and racists to me.

    1. Gumbo eaters are worse then Hitler. It is known.

    2. Well of course, but what you do is accept their help and then vandalize their boat afterwards. For justice.

      1. She then tweeted she’d let the hero rescue her, but then take his flag

        That’s outrageous! She should sue him for emotional damages!

        1. Maybe y’all should sue her for emotional damage?

      2. Sigh. Even in a time of crisis where people have to reach out to one another, some people are just compelled to demonstrate how fucking petty they can be.

      3. She “know(s) these people” but she doesn’t know airboats, or she wouldn’t think she could “tear off the flag and drop it into the flood”. That flag is painted on.

  7. And what happens when Facebook decides the people being rescued (or rescuers) aren’t being PC enough and bans them from Facebook? And every other tech company follows suit?

    That hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure it will.

    1. It doesn’t apparently even have to happen for the right-wing victimhood mentality to take hold.

    2. FAKE NEWS!

  8. Even if you think the government is a beacon of efficiency, you’ve just got to realize that they aren’t gods. There are problems–big disasters and everyday problems–that are simply beyond their powers, no matter how big a budget you give them or how many laws you pass.

    1. Heretic

    2. I’m sure that’ll they’ll remain virtuous beacons of hope and freedom with all of that power and money….

  9. A shitload of people down here own boats made for shallow water and these boats are useful when shit floods. If people were not using their boats to help rescue people then that would be weird especially when it’s their own friends on Facebook asking for help. It was never really a “Cajun Navy”. The vast majority of these people are not really cajuns either.

    1. It was never really a “Cajun Navy”. The vast majority of these people are not really cajuns either.

      Thank God you were here to set us all straight. Because whether or not the so-called “Cajun Navy” are really all Cajuns is totally what’s important. Now that that’s settled we can perhaps move on to the other, less important issues.

  10. I lost a duplex house in New Orleans during Katrina. I purposely was not paying insurance premiums, because I like to take my own risks. My neighbors, mostly all of them, had house insurance and were paid after Katrina damage. We, thought, “Oh well, we took the chance and lost”. THEN FEMA announced it would buy up all damaged, uninsured properties at 70% of their pre-storm value. They paid us 100 grand, and then months later, sent us another 4 thousand bucks for some unstated reason.
    Such incompetence and bad incentives! Rewarding people for not insuring! I was ashamed to take the OPM$$$, but thousands of others were, so…..

  11. The local librarian praised me for rescuing her with a canoe. Later she had a shit-fit because I parked in front of her house, even though she didn’t own a car. Fuck humanity.

  12. The MSM lovefest will only last until they can find some villains to prop up in this event. Trump is an obvious choice but I fear they’ll set their sites on volunteer rescuers in the end. There are already reports of looters picking through property and it will only take one example of a volunteer defending themselves with a firearm to set off the Press.
    Then they can fire up the “Government is the only true savior” narrative.
    Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.

  13. Can’t wait to see all of the gun toting Texans on the news during rescue operations. Not even kidding. I know I wouldn’t go wandering around un-armed with something of value in that chaos.

    1. I know my husband carried his rifle in the truck and I carried the Glock in the van while we were out. We’ll also be answering the door with the guns for the next few weeks since there are looters knocking on doors and then shoving them open when you answer them.

  14. Hold on, Reason! I’m pretty sure that all the Democrats I know have told me that when disasters like this happen, Libertarians sit back on their piles of money, polish their monocles and chuckle. Clearly, Reason is not the Libertarian news source I have been led to believe.

    Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I have to sit back on my pile of money, drink a chilled beverage, have an orphan polish my monocle for me, and chuckle.

  15. It’s not just disaster relief; there’s a larger lesson that needs to be taken from this.

    Private American citizens are perfectly willing and able to allocate time, effort, and resources to help those in need. Sitting on your ass and “subcontracting your compassion” to the government, and letting THEM take care of those in need FOR you, inevitably results in waste and misallocation to people who would probably benefit more from being forced to help themselves. “You’re not needy, you’re just lazy, but I need your vote, so…”

    Using government resources (your tax dollars) in ways other than those few enumerated ways authorized by the Constitution lets too many people “off the hook”: I don’t need to help in Houston, I pay taxes so I don’t HAVE to…”

    1. It’s the Proggie way.

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