LENS Essay Series: “Calling Forth” the Cajun Navy? Legal Frameworks for Ad Hoc Disaster Relief

Have you heard of the Cajun Navy?  You’ll have the chance to learn more because our newest addition to LENS’s online Essays on Law, Ethics and National Security Series features Zach Ezor’s Calling Forth” the Cajun Navy? Legal Frameworks for Ad Hoc Disaster Relief.

This truly fascinating essay addresses how the role of volunteers in emergencies can sometimes be more legally-complicated than it may seem.  Zack examines the issues through the lens of the “Cajun Navy.”  What I especially like about his piece is that he just doesn’t just unpack potential concerns, he offers solution to address them.

Written well before the pandemic, it nevertheless could not be more timely as understanding the merits – and costs – of using volunteers for what are traditionally viewed as governmental activities is something we may be needing to do more often in the foreseeable future.  Zack’s extremely readable essay provides a template as to how to think about these complicated issues.

It’s an intriguing essay that you’ll really want to read! (here)


The Cajun Navy—ad hoc, private boaters who assist in search and rescue—are on the verge of becoming a fixture of domestic disaster relief.  The positive case for the Cajun Navy is easy to make: they’ve saved thousands of stranded people from floodwaters since the time of Hurricane Katrina.  Heroism aside, however, the Cajun Navy maintains an identity that is completely separate and apart from federal, state, and local governments, often acting without—or in direct disobedience of—explicit authority in the midst of a natural disaster.

Is this good?  Without discounting the Cajun Navy’s brave work, it is worth discussing the risks and difficulties posed by our growing reliance on ad hoc disaster relief groups.  This essay highlights four such risks: (1) that rescuers themselves will become stranded or injured; (2) that coordinated emergency responses will be disrupted by rogue action; (3) that residents of flood-prone areas will develop a false sense of security and disregard evacuation orders; and (4) that ad hoc volunteers will engage in vigilantism.

The essay then explores two avenues for encouraging volunteer search-and-rescue groups while also mitigating potential drawbacks—either by incorporating volunteers into existing State Defense Forces, or, less formally, through credentialing and resource sharing—before evaluating the pros and cons of each.

Again, I urge you to read the full essay found here.


Zack Ezor is an attorney based in Durham.  He graduated magna cum laude and Order of the Coif from Duke Law School, where he was Executive Editor of the Duke Law Journal.  Prior to law school, Zack produced radio for an NPR affiliate in Boston.  Avid hikers, he and his wife have completed both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails.

The views expressed in the Essays on Law, Ethics and National Security Series do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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