Meet the Cracker Navy, here to help rescue Floridians from Hurricane Irma

Published September 10 2017
Updated September 10 2017

TAMPA — After seeing the destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey, John Steele couldn't sleep. Instead, the 24-year-old and a friend loaded up his 17-foot skiff and drove nearly 900 miles to join the "Cajun Navy" — the rescue flotilla of civilian boaters created in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina — to help those trapped in Texas' floodwaters.

Then Hurricane Irma threatened the Tampa Bay region. So on Wednesday, Steele and a half-dozen friends created their rescue group for their home state — the "Cracker Navy."

LIVE BLOG: Latest updates on Hurricane Irma.

"We did it because we're Florida crackers and that's what we do," Steele, 24, 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."

He launched the "Cracker Navy" Facebook group and shared it with thousands of members of Facebook's Tampa Bay Fishing Club Group. By Friday, Steele had approved more than 600 members and established relations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard.

In between boarding up his own windows and checking his family's supplies, 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," said Steele, a pipefitter who lives in Tampa.

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. Some rescuers arrived at a house that had put out a call for help only to learn that another team had already rescued those inside, he said. Other volunteer rescuers told stories of having boats stolen or being robbed after answering fake calls for help.

Those stories make some of Steele's recruits, like neighbor and friend Bryce Veller, 23, a bit nervous. But Veller said his urge to help those in need, sparked by following Steele's Facebook and Snapchat posts from flood zones in Texas, overcame his trepidation.

"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."

COMPLETE COVERAGE:Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

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 thanks to "many hands and many boats," 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."

Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Ken Huff said citizens who join such volunteer rescue missions should be sure to establish contact with organized groups like the "Cracker Navy" before heading to the disaster scene.

"Once you're organized and know where you're needed you can truly help out," Huff said, "but just to show up to one of these disaster areas could be extremely dangerous. I wouldn't just go in on my own to rescue people, whatsoever."

Steele hasn't had much time to process the destruction he saw in Texas. He said he steered his boat around the floating carcasses of cows, dogs, horses and pigs. He found himself arriving at locked homes, submerged in floodwaters, and wondering if anyone was trapped inside.

Yet he could never ride out a storm at home again, he said. Not after feeling the fulfillment of helping people, perhaps even saving lives.

"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.

Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.