Twenty days have passed since Gunner Palmer, 16, and Zeb Hughes, 21, avid hunters from Copiah County, set out on the Mississippi River to find a good spot for duck hunting and never returned.
Twenty days of determined searching by countless emergency response professionals, who are leveraging every available resource, has yet to provide closure for the families of the missing young men. Over the course of the search, officials have coordinated from several surrounding counties to deploy boats, planes, drones outfitted with infrared cameras and teams of trained search and rescue dogs in a relentless quest to leave no stone unturned until the boys are returned home.
When Todd Terrell of the United Cajun Navy heard of the hunters’ disappearance, he was immediately compelled to offer their resources and experience to aid in the search. On Dec. 4, the morning after the pair vanished, the United Cajun Navy put in at LeTourneau to search the river. More recently, the group has been deploying air craft and boats from Vidalia, Louisiana, to search. It is likely that members of other Cajun Navy groups have also contributed to the operation. The Cajun Navy, you see, is not as united as the name might suggest.
The original United Cajun Navy was born in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A member of then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s staff sought assistance from Todd Terrell, whose family was in the seafood industry and owned boats that had survived the storm. Although the Terrell family had just lost most of their livelihood, they pooled resources and began assisting with evacuations, and later with feeding and providing shelter to those devastated by the hurricane.
Terrell’s life was forever changed by Katrina and the experiences that followed. It was then that he met his mentor, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, and began to understand the power of people coming together in the spirit of goodwill. Since then, the United Cajun Navy has grown to become a highly trained and widely recognized authority in emergency response and crisis intervention. On its website, the group lists six hurricanes that volunteers have responded to since becoming an official 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in 2018; performing rescues, providing food and shelter, helping to clear debris and repairing property damage.
Unfortunately, their hard work and good intentions would prove not to be enough to spare the group their own storms to weather. Through the years, disagreements arose and the group splintered into factions, most using the moniker “Cajun Navy” in some way. Mounting tensions came to a head in 2019, when Terrell settled a lawsuit with several individuals accused of cyberstalking Terrell and his group.
There are also some groups that are entirely unrelated to the United Cajun Navy but happen to have a similar name. Most of the Cajun Navy groups you will find are good folks with ideals similar to those of Terrell and his organization. A few outliers have been less than noble and their transgressions have reflected poorly on the others.
“One of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t trademark the Cajun Navy name,” Terrell said. He has even considered changing the name of his organization, but he is reluctant to walk away from something he created. In regard to the conflicts and controversy surrounding the name, Terrell holds no grudges and believes that one’s actions speak for themselves, saying, “I just wish we could all work together. Imagine what we could do.”
Based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the United Cajun Navy has built a massive network of volunteers and resources around its commitment to making the world a better place, one neighbor at a time. Help from corporate donors including Delta Airlines, Exxon Mobile, Baton Rouge attorney Peyton Murphy and high-profile supporters like Ashley Jones, star of History Channel’s reality TV show “Swamp People,” enable the United Cajun Navy to focus on coordinating resources to help people in need, rather than spend time and energy on fundraising from the public.
“We don’t have to sell T-shirts to raise money to buy a boat,” Terrell said, noting that their far-reaching network of volunteers provide their own equipment and supplies to make their work possible. Not only does this approach make the most economic sense, using local resources allows for a quicker response when, in many cases, time is of the essence.
As it relates to the current search for Gunner Palmer and Zeb Hughes, Terrell says that they are utilizing an app that the organization has been beta testing for release in the next few months. By tracking the locations and movements of his team of searchers using the app, they are able to more accurately determine what areas have been covered. The app is packed with a variety of useful features and will be free to download. Look for our upcoming story to learn more about this development.
Provided that the weather forecast for this weekend holds true, the group will have planes and helicopters rejoining the search effort. Terrell believes that this resource greatly increases their chances of success and is grateful to all those that have offered their help.
Although they are best known for their hurricane deployments, the United Cajun Navy is busy year-round. They organize food drives, Christmas toy drives, COVID-19 PPE distribution and many other relief efforts. Just this week, they delivered 1,700 gift baskets to seniors in nursing homes.
Kelley Branch contributed to this story.