Monday, July 22, 2024

United Cajun Navy members claim Pender County turned away volunteers, vehicles, and supplies

Volunteer disaster relief group from Baton Rouge told to stay away by Emergency Operations Center officials in Burgaw; remained to rescue and supply hundreds.

United Cajun Navy founder Todd Terrell, left, looks at monitors at the Pender County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Burgaw on the weekend after Hurricane Florence made landfall in the area. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy of Todd Terrell)
United Cajun Navy founder Todd Terrell, left, looks at monitors at the Pender County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Burgaw on the weekend after Hurricane Florence made landfall in the area. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy of Todd Terrell)

PENDER COUNTY — According to three volunteers with a grassroots disaster relief group known as the United Cajun Navy, including its founder Todd Terrell, officials at the Pender County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Burgaw denied the group’s network of boats and aircraft access to operate rescue and supply operations within county lines in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

“In Texas they loved us; Pender County told us to leave,” Terrell said, referring to his group’s rescue efforts in Houston after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Todd Terrell and the United Cajun Navy

According to Brad Lindberg, a former colonel in the U.S. Marines who volunteered to improve coordination among United Cajun Navy supply crews working throughout southeastern North Carolina, Terrell’s disaster relief work stretches back over a decade.

“Terrell has been working rescue and relief operations since Katrina, when he lost everything, because he understands the needs of people who have lost everything. That’s where his heart is,” Lindberg said.

An organic movement of private boat owners known as the Cajun Navy — named for the skilled shallow water boat pilots who populate the Louisiana bayou region — formed in response to Hurricane Katrina and was reactivated eleven years later in the aftermath of the 2016 Louisiana floods. Different branches emerged during the group’s response to Hurricane Harvey a year later, and Terrell founded a Baton Rouge chapter known as the United Cajun Navy (UCN).

In the days leading up to Florence’s landfall in southeastern North Carolina, Terrell said that he had organized a small armada of over 200 boats: 76 pulled in on trailers from 19 different states and the remaining recruited from within North Carolina.

After the group established a base camp at Peace Baptist Church in Wilmington, they began hearing on radio traffic that flood-stricken communities in Pender County were in distress.

Problems in Pender County

On the night of Friday, September 14th, Terrell sent approximately 60 boat crews to Burgaw. On Saturday morning, Pender County Emergency Management Director Tom Collins and Pender EMT and Fire Chief Woody Sullivan told him that only three boats could stay in the county, and each had to report directly to Sullivan’s department, according to Terrell. This included a boat team Terrell called Seal Team 6, comprised of former U.S. military members.

“What’s three boats going to do when hundreds of people are in need?” Terrell said, before hanging up the phone to answer a call from a volunteer in Florida preparing for Hurricane Michael.

Robert Pepper, a volunteer with another organization, confirmed Terrell’s account.

United Cajun Navy founder Todd Terrell directs crews of volunteers at the Pender County EMT & Fire Station in Burgaw during the organization's flood relief efforts in the county. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy of Todd Terrell)
United Cajun Navy founder Todd Terrell directs crews of volunteers at the Emergency Operations Center in Burgaw during the organization’s flood relief efforts in Pender County. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy of Todd Terrell)

“They told the rest of them that they needed to leave … We were never really given the specifics on [their reason]. If there had been 60 boats up there we would’ve been much more efficient,” Pepper said. “There was also a point in time where we had boats trying to go into Pender County and they were threatened to be arrested. They weren’t allowed past the [county] borderline.”

Terrell said that members of his group, who have often operated as vigilantes when hampered by bureaucratic restrictions, remained in Pender County despite the EOC’s warnings that volunteers could face arrests.

“We were still rescuing people in Pender … over 200,” Terrell said.

“The Pender EOC gave us hell,” Terrell said. “I was told to leave that Sunday or Monday after the storm, when we were in there dropping supplies. I said, ‘I ain’t leavin.’ I saw the desperation on the people’s faces. You got 600 people in the shelters and they got no food. Why would you not want us to stay there? Why would you not want us to help?”

Pepper said he witnessed UCN attempt to contact the county several times to notify officials that several helicopters were on standby. According to Pepper, the offers were rebuffed and eventually went without answer.

“There is a demand in areas where our boat crews went,” Lindberg said. “They uncovered people in need in places nobody had been to. These people along the river up in Pender haven’t seen anybody. No one’s coming out there. It’s nuts.”

Terrell estimated that the UCN delivered between 12 and 15 18-wheelers of supplies to Pender County after the moment that Collins had told him to leave the county.

(Editor’s note: Collins did not respond to the Port City Daily’s attempts to reach him by phone and email by the time of this article’s publication.)

Issues also arose with the Red Cross, according to Terrell, which was in charge of the supply drop-off location at Pender High School in Burgaw. He said that the UCN had been delivering wheelchairs and other medical and food supplies to the school without any problems. After Terrell posted a Facebook Live video of one delivery, five days after Florence made landfall, the Red Cross informed him they no longer wanted further helicopter and trailer drop-offs from the UCN.

For Terrell, the sudden change in mindset from the Red Cross echoed the behavior from Pender County officials: they did not wish to share the publicity spotlight with an outsider group, especially one that wasn’t on the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) list.

A shift towards cleanup and reconstruction

Last week the UCN moved its base camp from Peace Baptist to the Coca-Cola warehouse near downtown Wilmington, where a growing amount of supplies are still coming in from donors.

When asked about the amount of donations, Lindberg said the support from Wilmington has been unmatched.

“Todd’s been working these ops a long time, and he said he’s never seen the support as strong as it is from Wilmington,” Lindberg said.

“We had over 10 million pounds of supply that went out since Florence — food, water, cleaning supplies, pet supplies, 3,000 pounds of milk, ice,” Terrell said, adding that the UCN has had over 1,000 volunteers and has made over 2,000 rescues and supply drop-offs across five different counties.

Lindberg recalled three trucks that came from Pennsylvania overnight pulling large contractor trailers each full of food and clothes.

“It is America, you know,” Lindberg said.

Note: The original version of this article identified Robert Pepper as a member of UCN. It has been updated to clarify that Pepper volunteered alongside UCN members, but belongs to a different organization.

Reporter Mark Darrough can be reached at

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