As It Happens

Volunteer 'Cajun Navy' resuscitates elderly woman found floating face down in Houston

Joshua Lincoln of the Cajun Navy, a volunteer rescue group that formed during Hurricane Katrina, describes the harrowing rescue efforts in flood-ravaged Houston.
The Cajun Navy volunteer rescue group found 73-year-old Wilma Ellis floating face down in the waters near Houston early Monday morning. (Joshua Lincoln/Facebook)

Story transcript

Joshua Lincoln and his fellow volunteer rescuers were making their way through the flooded streets of northeast Houston by boat on Monday morning when they spotted what they thought was a bag of garbage floating towards them.

But as it grew nearer they realized it was, in fact, a person.

"She was face down in the water. All you could see was her black shirt had air in it above her, and that's what was sticking up above the water," Lincoln told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. "You couldn't tell it was a body until you got right on it."

Two of the men aboard the boat — members of a volunteer rescue group called the Cajun Navy — dove into the rushing waters in a grim effort to retrieve what they believed was a dead body.

"They got her to higher ground right next to a fence and were able to start compressions and get her to a slow breath. We thought she wasn't coming back, but finally she started breathing slowly," Lincoln said.

"It's unbelievable. You can't describe it. It's very instantly emotional. And, you know, I've seen things in Hurricane Katrina and other events, but every time you see something like that, it just hits you so hard."

The Cajun Navy is a grassroots network of hunters, fishers and boaters from the along U.S. Gulf Coast that formed in New Orleans in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina. Now they help communities with storm preparation and assist first responders in times of crisis. 

Lincoln travelled from his home in Madisonville, La., to Houston, Texas, on Sunday to help the rescue effort in the flood-ravaged city.

Tropical storm Harvey has brought record-breaking rains and catastrophic flooding to Texas, killed at least fifteen people, and paralyzed Houston, the fourth most-populous U.S. city. Some 30,000 people were expected to seek emergency shelter as the flooding entered its fourth day on Tuesday.

Lincoln estimates he, with two other Cajun Navy volunteers, has rescued about 200 stranded people in and around Houston since Sunday, including the almost lifeless woman, who sported a wristband that identified her as 73-year-old Wilma Ellis.

"I've had 3 1/2 hours of sleep in the last 36 hours," he said.

After injuring his back on the boat, Lincoln spent Tuesday on land, co-ordinating the rescue effort.

He said there's always a risk that a rescue operation will turn into a body retrieval, but they don't let that stop them. 

"Because, you know what? You never know when you're going to roll up on one who can be brought back."

Joshua Lincoln is a member of a volunteer boat rescue network called the Cajun Navy. (Joshua Lincoln/Facebook)

With files from Reuters