Ken McFeeters still remembers the first time he saw the Cajun Navy in action.
It was 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina stretched its destructive hand over Louisiana and other states along the Gulf Coast. Evacuees had been brought to a civic center in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and McFeeters wanted to help.
After loading his trailer with supplies, McFeeters arrived at the civic center not knowing what to expect, or how many people would be there to help. But that’s when he first caught a glimpse of the Cajun Navy, a rag-tag group of volunteers that is now called into action whenever a natural disaster strikes.
McFeeters doesn’t remember how many folks came to help that day. All he remembers is being “blown away” by their immediate response and willingness to serve.
“I remember people lined up in cars around the block from the civic center bringing donations,” he said. “It blew my mind. Just regular people lined up wanting to help, unloading cars and trucks one after the other.”
That wasn’t the last time McFeeters encountered the Cajun Navy.
He ran into them again three years ago, less than a month after the Great Flood of 2016 dumped more than 30 inches of water across Denham Springs and much of Livingston Parish.
Hoping to help again, McFeeters made a list of supplies and went to a nearby Costco, loaded up his trailer, and made the five-hour drive to a Louisiana church where recovery efforts were well underway.
McFeeters worried that it would take awhile to unload his trailer full of goods, but those fears were soon put to rest.
“On one side of the building they had trucks that people were unloading, and again, a line of people just wanting to give,” he said. “I backed up and they had young guys all wearing the same T-shirt, and they had my truck unloaded in 10 minutes. Then they went to the next truck, just one truck after the other. It just makes you smile.”
On his drive back home, McFeeters felt the story of the Cajun Navy had to be told.
“I was inspired,” he said. “All I thought was, ‘This was a great story.’”
McFeeters has finally put his story into words with the release of his children’s book, “Hannah and the Cajun Navy.”
The book, co-written by McFeeters and his friend Elijah Jones with illustrations by James Hislope, follows the story of Hannah, a 10-year-old girl living in Denham Springs who, like thousands of others living in the city at the time, had her life thrown into chaos when her beloved hometown was flooded in the early morning hours of Aug, 13, 2016.
A boat owner himself who loves to sail along the Gulf of Mexico, McFeeters initially started the project on his own, but it didn’t take long before he realized he needed help.
“I wrote it, and that’s when I realized I’m not a writer,” he joked.
Fortunately for McFeeters, he didn’t have to search long for help with his book idea.
“Luckily, he had his friend Elijah,” Jones said with a laugh.
In Jones, McFeeters not only had a friend of more than 20 years at his side, he also had an experienced writer.
A native of Mississippi, Jones had written for numerous publications over the years. In 1993, he became a New York Times bestseller for his work on “Richard Simmons’ Never Give Up,” a collection of short stories about people who successfully lost weight in the fitness guru’s program.
Though he had never written a children’s book before, Jones said the story “pretty much wrote itself” once he sat down to write.
“Ken laid out the story and what he wanted to put in it, and then I just began writing,” Jones said. “When I sat down and started writing, the words just flowed.”
Jones said he could relate to what people in Denham Springs experienced during the Great Flood, having gone through a similar ordeal in his hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, during Hurricane Katrina.
As he was writing the book, Jones said he took a road trip to Denham Springs “to get a feel of the city.” He took a drive on Hwy. 190, drove through the Antique Village, crossed over the Amite River, and spoke with people who experienced the flood. He even ventured to Baton Rouge and drove past Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, which he used for one of the book’s most emotional chapters.
“The trip gave me a good feel for what the city felt like,” Jones said.
Though both writers live outside Louisiana, the story is full of references from The Pelican State.
Hannah’s favorite stuffed animal is named Mikey, a teddy bear dressed in purple and gold and named after Mike the Tiger, LSU’s popular mascot. She loves eating her mother’s home-cooked jambalaya and gumbo, and she is used to the frequent afternoon showers Louisianians are accustomed to in the summer months.
Then, of course, there’s the Cajun Navy.
McFeeters and Jones said they searched “for everything we could find” on the volunteer rescue group, learning about the group’s origins, how volunteers use social media to find people in need, and how they mobilize “seemingly overnight” when disasters strike.
They included much of what they learned in the book, especially in the climactic scene when Hannah, her father, and their dog Sadie are rescued from their flooded home.
“We wanted to spotlight the Cajun Navy,” Jones said. “They’ve done an incredible job, not just for south Louisiana, but all of the Gulf Coast states. These people are all volunteers, and we just wanted to put the spotlight on the job they do for their neighbors.”
“The responsiveness of these people and their giving nature, it gives you goosebumps when you think about it,” McFeeters added. “For what they do and not asking for a dime in return, is incredible.”
McFeeters and Jones said they plan on doing book signings and readings in the future, especially in the Gulf Coast states. Their hope is that the story of the Cajun Navy can reach audiences outside of the south.
“It’s a regional story, but we really think it should be a national story,” Jones said. “Anytime there is a tropical storm, the Cajun Navy becomes part of the story. We want to get the word out about who they are and the important work that they do.”