The Complicated Politics of Rescue and Recovery

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As traffic fled Houston before Hurricane Harvey, a line of trucks towing small, flat-bottomed boats made their way into the city. The Cajun Navy would save hundreds of lives from flooded neighborhoods, and instead of rejecting their help, the government embraced it, entrusting much of the evacuation to this rag-tag band of individuals, preferring them over the Red Cross, and in some cases, the National Guard.

Miriam Markowitz followed the Cajun Navy for GQ in the days after the hurricane, when it became clear that the resources needed simply weren’t adequate. The Navy itself is small but organized. Begun in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina, it’s helped residents of Louisiana with almost yearly flooding, and travels to nearby states for help during big storms or hurricanes. It’s the kind of help that comes in the moment, and the Navy uses a walkie-talkie app to dispatch boats to specific locations. Even local Louisiana politicians are on board with the independent rescue squad:

He was sympathetic to Todd’s gripes about slow, ineffective, and possibly jealous local law enforcement—people who likely resented the sudden intrusion and soaring popularity of the Cajun Navy. “The state police can’t stop you from driving to Texas,” the politician said. “In a time of disaster, you can break the rules and still do the right thing.”

But like everything else, issues surrounding rescue and aid have been complicated by the 2016 US presidential election. When President Trump visited the Navy to thank them for their efforts, protestors showed up with signs to meet the motorcade, offending members of the Navy who felt like their gargantuan efforts were being disrespected. “The politics of rescue and recovery seem as though they should be simple — come to the aid of people in need, regardless of race or creed,” writes Markowitz. “But in reality, they are often tribal.”

The most egregious example of this was New Orleans during Katrina, when the federal response was late and wholly insufficient, and led to hundreds of deaths in a city that is predominantly black. This year, after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Trump reprised George W. Bush’s failure, and for the same reason: New Orleans and Puerto Rico are full of people who aren’t white and thus not a national priority. (Twelve years later, there are tens of thousands of black people missing from New Orleans who left after the storm and never returned.)

Todd was particularly sensitive to questions of race — the Cajun Navy was almost completely white. On Thursday he had canceled an interview with CNN because they wanted, he said, to “make it about race.” Also, he claimed, they had once asked him to stage a rescue for live television. He explained while we waited for Trump, “In New Orleans, we were rescuing hundreds of black people from places most would never go. This isn’t about race. This is about coming together.” Todd appeared to be correct: in contrast to the lopsidedness of federal relief, I encountered no evidence that any victims were denied help from the Cajun Navy because they were black and saw many pictures documenting the opposite.

But tribal undercurrents did run through the rescue efforts. Fans of the Cajun Navy were quick to point out that many of its members did belong to a certain group, one that has long been ridiculed in the media and which has come to represent to many, since the 2016 election, what’s wrong with America. As one supporter wrote, with some hyperbole, on Facebook, “Every member of the Cajun Navy would be deemed ‘deplorable’ by that certain individual who will never, ever be President of the United States.”

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