TAMPA — John Steele had never been to Texas, didn’t know anyone who lived there and has rarely ventured away from the Sulphur Springs home where he’s lived since childhood.
But after watching news coverage of the utter destruction left by Hurricane Harvey, he couldn’t sleep.
So the night after the storm hit last month, Steele and a friend loaded up his truck with chainsaws, bolt cutters, and his 17-foot, 70-horsepower skiff boat and drove nearly 900 miles to join the “Cajun Navy” — a rescue group comprised of civilian boaters that formed in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
But now the 24-year-old pipefitter has a new mission at home in Tampa because of Hurricane Irma. On Wednesday, Steele and a half-dozen friends created a spin-off rescue group for his home state — the “Cracker Navy.”
“We did it because we’re Florida crackers and that’s what we do,” Steele said. “We look out for each other. We take care of each other. Race, creed, religion, political views, everything that’s so important these days you put it aside and look out for your fellow Floridian, your fellow American. You help people.”
After he launched the “Cracker Navy” Facebook group and shared it with thousands of members on Facebook’s Tampa Bay Fishing Club Group, Steele had approved more than 600 volunteer rescuers by Friday afternoon and established communication with FEMA and the U.S. Coast Guard. In between boarding up his own windows and checking his family’s supply stock, Steele worked through a list of about 50 background and contact forms he requires from every volunteer before admitting them into the group.
“Basically, we’re checking for skills or equipment they could bring to rescue missions and making sure they aren’t sketchy,” Steele said.
It’s a lesson he learned first hand working with the Cajun Navy in communities around Port Arthur and Orange, Texas. The many grass-roots rescue missions were mostly coordinated through Zello, a free smartphone app that works like an Internet-based walkie-talkie between anyone who joins a group. Because the app allows communication even when cell phone signals are weak, it’s seen thousands of new downloads every day since Harvey hit, according to the company’s Twitter page.
But the volume of users also made it more complicated for Cajun Navy members to verify calls for help, Steele said. It was common to arrive at a house that put out a call for help only to find that another team had already rescued those inside, he said. Other volunteer rescuers told stories of having their boats stolen or getting robbed after responding to a fake call for help.
Those stories make some “Cracker Navy” recruits, like Steele’s neighbor and friend Bryce Veller, 23, a bit nervous, he said. But his urge to help those in need, sparked by following Steele’s Facebook and Snapchat posts from flood zones in Texas, overshadows any trepidation, Veller said.
“I’m more than ready for it,” said Veller, a recent graduate of St. Leo University’s ecology program. “This is my home, my family, and I would want someone to look out for me if I was in need.”
Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Jeremy Finney, 40, worked alongside the Cajun Navy during rescue missions in Texas as a member of Florida’s Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force 3. The 25-member team, comprised of swift-water rescue experts from Tampa Fire Rescue, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, was able to rescue nearly 1,000 people in southeast Texas over 10 days because of the “many hands and many boats” who wanted to help, Finney said.
“There are debates about whether these groups are helping or hindering our efforts, but the volunteers I’ve worked with really are helping,” Finney said. “I don’t think nearly as many people would have been brought to a place of safety without help from those folks, and in areas we aren’t familiar with they can get us the information we need about who needs rescuing and how to get to them. It’s amazing to see so many people willing to drop everything to help a stranger.”
For citizen volunteers to have the biggest impact on such rescue missions they should be sure to establish contact with organized groups like the “Cracker Navy” before heading toward a disaster area, said Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Ken Huff.
“Once you’re organized and know where you’re needed you can truly help out, but just to show up to one of these disaster areas could be extremely dangerous,” Huff said. “I wouldn’t just go in on my own to rescue people, whatsoever.”
Steele hasn’t had much time to think about the destruction he saw in Texas, he said. He still carries memories of steering his boat around dead horses, dogs, cows and pigs floating in the water, or arriving at a locked home submerged in floodwaters and wondering if anyone is trapped inside. But the reward of helping another person, perhaps even saving their life, is too big of a draw for him to stay content with riding out the storm in his home, he said.
“People everywhere have it in them to do what I did in Texas, what the Cajun Navy did in Katrina — that courage is in everyone,” Steele said. “You have to be willing to sacrifice a part of yourself but at the end you leave the bad behind and only take away the smiles, the tears of joy, the people coming up to you out of nowhere to shake your hand. That’s something that is greater than any horrible thing you could ever see.”
Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.