Rising flood waters across 20 parishes have left thousands trapped, at least 13 dead and, according to the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, $20.7 billion in property damage. The sudden, unexpected nature of the storm combined with the severity and scale of the damage quickly overwhelmed response efforts.

The Cajun Navy, however, was prepared. As one resident noted, “People showed up with water, Gatorade, food trucks and a line of boat captains ready to go.” The Cajun Navy, a group of local volunteers, stepped up to the challenge and has helped in the rescue of roughly 30,000 people trapped by flooding.

Disaster response presents several challenges. Critically, victims of disaster must be located quickly. In the case of flooding, rescue boats must be deployed to search flood waters and both inside and outside (on rooftops) of buildings. Medical supplies, clean water, and food is needed for victims, and a key challenge is distributing those supplies as fast as possible to those who need them. Disaster victims are likely scattered and will have varying needs — the question is how to fulfill them quickly and effectively.

Organized during 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the Cajun Navy is made up of individuals who donate their labor and their boats to help those affected by flooding. In the wake of disaster, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy, researchers found that civil society efforts were critical to rebuilding. Civil society efforts, such as the Cajun Navy, have at least two distinct advantages over Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) efforts:

  1. They have access to local knowledge, and,
  2. They are flexible, enabling a quick response and also the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Because the Cajun Navy consists of local volunteers who operate “on the ground” (or above the ground, on the water), they have access to local knowledge that other entities do not. Economist F.A. Hayek’s claim that knowledge is both dispersed and specific to time and place requires that we consider how various institutional structures are able or unable to make use of knowledge.

In the case of the Cajun Navy and flooding in Louisiana, the relevant local knowledge includes knowledge of available resources – including other people (who may or may not have particular skills) and physical resources such as boats, clean water and food, and buildings that have not been flooded – as well as knowledge of what particular assistance people require. In a market setting, prices guide resources from suppliers to demanders; absent the price mechanism, local knowledge can facilitate exchanges between “assistance suppliers” and “assistance demanders.”

For example, the Cajun Navy supplies the rescue service and connects with demanders by searching neighborhoods and buildings where the volunteers suspect people might need help, using their local knowledge to determine which buildings those might be and navigating to them.

Closely related, local volunteers can make use of social capital, or their network of social relations. In the current flooding in Louisiana, the Cajun Navy has successfully used Facebook to communicate with friends and neighbors about relief efforts and also to locate victims and find further volunteers. As a result, more and more volunteers have joined the efforts, as one such volunteer described, “I had a guy call me yesterday, practically in tears, and all he wanted to do was help. You read about people being in trouble and needing help, and you can’t stand by while that’s going on.”

Researchers studying recovery post-Hurricane Katrina found that neighborhood associations and local churches used their member records to call, text, and email residents who were displaced and to coordinate recovery aid.

Similarly, following Superstorm Sandy, the Orthodox Jewish community in Bayswater and Far Rockaway on the Rockaway Peninsula in New York, contacted members by phone and email and even used an excel spreadsheet to keep track of what particular items (e.g. appliances, mattresses, clothing) were needed so that suppliers of aid could provide exactly what was needed (Storr et al. 2015).

Not only do they have a better understanding of local conditions, but groups such as the Cajun Navy also have the advantage of flexibility. Their decentralized nature means that they can take action without waiting for orders. The volunteers of the Cajun Navy are entrepreneurs – they were alert to an opportunity to help, leveraged resources, and carried out their plan. As circumstances change on the ground, they can also make note of changes and adapt accordingly. For example, shifting focus from one neighborhood to another.

Volunteers with the Cajun Navy understand how to cope with disaster, and they can empathize with those currently suffering. That empathy, combined with better access to information and greater flexibility, makes grassroots groups – such as the Cajun Navy –effective following disaster. Often we assume that the only entities that can help are, for example, FEMA, however, the Cajun Navy illustrates how civil society can play a role, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Editor’s Note: Professor Grube coauthored this piece with a student, Georgia Armitage, a sophomore at Beloit College.