The rains in south Louisiana began on Friday, August 12, and the flooding followed only hours later. Cities like Lafayette, Denham Springs, Baton Rouge, and almost every part in between flooded, and the water continued to rise as the rains continued to fall throughout the weekend. With as much as 31 inches of rain in some towns, the weather experts say this was a 1000-year flood event with a one tenth of one percent chance of it ever happening again. That’s .1%, y’all. What are the chances?
Saturday night, August, 13, Capt. Chris Venable, owner and operator of Topline Fishing Charters in Houma, LA, grew more and more anxious as he viewed photos of the flooding on social media. “How in the world can this be happening?” he wondered. And his next thought was “this is déjà vu all over again”.
You see, Capt. Chris grew up in New Orleans, and it just so happens that he sold his house in New Orleans and moved to Houma just a mere two weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck in August of 2005. Knowing that thousands of people were flooded and stuck within the city, he loaded his boat and went back to the Big Easy to help rescue those stranded by the high water in the Katrina flooding.
Fast forward to the night of Saturday, August 13, 2016, and we find Capt. Chris sending a group text to all the charter guides he fishes with down here in Theriot, LA. The captain’s text was a call to rally local charter guide buddies to go with him to, once again, help those in need. Neither Houma nor Theriot were experiencing the record-breaking rainfall that the above-named areas were, so these men were high and dry and willing to help.
On Sunday morning, Capt. Chris, Capt. Eldon Rodrigue, and Capt. Olden Rodrigue loaded up their boats and headed to Prairieville, LA, one of the inundated towns. They made their way to a command center in the Walmart parking lot at the intersection of LA Highways 42 and 44. Capt. Chris walked up to an authority, introduced himself as a licensed and insured charter fishing guide who was ready to rescue people. He and the other captains waited around for about half an hour and were finally told they should drive back south along I-10 or Highway 61 and wait at a church parking lot because the water was headed south.
Well, that wouldn’t do for Venable and his crew. They didn’t haul their boats all that way just to sit around and do nothing. Finally, one of the local authorities said, “All I can tell you is that Hwy 42 is underwater.” Well, no horse hockey, Sherlock. It was clearly evident that the road was underwater, but that was all the go-ahead these would-be rescuers needed.
They backed their boat trailers onto Highway 42 in the deepest water they could find to launch. When the water wasn’t deep enough to float the boat off the trailer, a big four-wheel drive pickup truck hooked onto the boat and jerked it off the trailer, and off they went. After hitting several high spots in the road with their propellers, they decided to take to the woods to reach flooded neighborhoods. Not being familiar with the area, all they could do was try to stay in the deepest water and watch out for hazards to navigation where no navigation should even be taking place!
Meanwhile, unknowing and unsuspecting people sat stranded in their flooded homes–some waist deep–when they heard the sound of boat engines roaring through their backyards. And out pops Capt. Chris and crew to save the day! “Hey, do you want to leave?” he asked house after house. Many families did take him up on the offer, but he was surprised at the number of people that did not want to leave their homes, even though they stood in knee-deep water inside their homes while they answered. He suspects they feared looters, or maybe they were just in shock, because these towns and cities had never, ever flooded before.
Once the boat was full, he headed back and offloaded the folks onto a high-water military transport or to higher ground near the command center where school buses waited to transport the evacuees to shelters. Eventually, Capt. Chris made his way into Bayou Manchac which overflowed its banks and raged through yards, knocking over swing sets, barbecue grills, and even boat trailers as the waters pushed through.
Hot, sweaty, and exhausted, Capt. Chris loaded his boat back on the trailer around dark Sunday evening and was about to call it a night when an old man approached him saying that his son and daughter-in-law were trapped in their home and wanted to get out. They put the boat back in the water and went off to rescue that couple and any others in the neighborhood that wanted to leave.
By 10:30 p.m. that night, Capt. Chris and the other guides were finally back at their home base in Prairieville, showered, and ready to go to bed when the phone rang. More folks needed to be evacuated immediately, so off they went again. As good luck would have it, Capt. Chris met up with Capt. Josh Ellender, who was in his shallow draft boat with deck lights rigged up for bow fishing at night. Off they went into the darkness, lights shining eerily across the water and into homes in the Manchac Harbor neighborhood. They continued the rescues until around 2:30 a.m., and it was 4 a.m. before they got their much-needed rest.
Monday morning, August 15, found Capt. Chris and his crew back at the command center at 6 a.m. ready to rescue more folks; only this time, a Sheriff’s deputy told them that they could not do rescues unless a deputy rode along, and they were fresh out of spare deputies. Then the official said, “But I can tell you that Highway 933 is totally under”. Well, say no more. Capt. Chris and company grabbed a few orange safety vests and headed to 933 to do their thing! Their rescue efforts continued throughout the day.
On Tuesday, August 16, the rain had slacked off and there was no new high water, so Capt. Chris and crew loaded up with supplies and water to take to the families that did not want to evacuate their homes. By Tuesday night, Capt. Chris and his crew finally came up for air, packed it in, and headed for home.
And what do you think he was doing for rest and relaxation on Wednesday? Well, bass fishing with a buddy, of course!
I caught up with him on Friday of last week to interview him about his rescue missions. He answered all my questions in his soft, humble way; without a smidgen of machismo. Suspecting I already knew the answer, I saved this question for last:
Me: “So, Captain, while you were out saving people for three days and nights, did you know about something called the Cajun Navy?”
Capt. Chris: First he chuckled and then said, “The Cajun Navy? Really? No, I didn’t know anything about the Cajun Navy. We weren’t a part of any navy.”
For clarification, in Denham Springs, north of where Capt. Chris was doing his duty, another large group of fishermen and hunters with trucks and boats sat lined up on a highway, with one among them going “live” on Facebook airing their complaints that they weren’t being allowed to help. Someone coined the term “Cajun Navy” in regard to these volunteers, and it stuck. But while the Cajun Navy was griping and complaining, unsung heroes like Capt. Chris and his comrades were out getting the job done, quietly, efficiently, and without any fanfare at all.
Regardless of the fact that Capt. Chris and his crew of brave fishermen had no clue about a Cajun Navy, they will, no doubt, go down in history as being part of that group of fishers and hunters of south Louisiana. But the real truth is, they’re just good old boys who’ve been there, done that, and didn’t mind going back to help out in the best way they knew how. Heck, they might even get the t-shirt!
We salute you, Captains Chris, Elton, Olden, Josh and others!
All photos courtesy of Capt. Chris Venable.