BRAITHWAITE, La. -- Bouncing through 6-foot storm swells in a
skiff while checking desperate Facebook posts on his iPhone, Jesse
Shaffer Jr. rescued one resident after another in this flooded
neighborhood as Hurricane Isaac roared and rained around him.
in a separate boat, his father, Jesse Shaffer Sr., went from one
inundated house to the next, collecting residents from roofs, windows
and truck tires. It was the early morning hours of Aug. 30 as Isaac
slowly marched across southern Louisiana and pushed a 12-foot storm
surge into Braithwaite, a small community 19 miles south of New Orleans.
Father and son rescued more than 120 stranded residents that day.
Shaffers are two of scores of residents -- from Plaquemines to LaPlace
to Slidell -- who helped others escape Isaac's punishing winds and
swiftly rising waters when it landed Aug. 29. But few civilian rescuers
were as prolific as the Shaffers.
"Absolutely heroes," Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said. "Without them, we would have a lot more loss of life."
mandatory evacuation was called for Braithwaite and other communities
in the storm's path, he said. Many chose to stay, underestimating
Isaac's strength and storm surge.
"This storm moved extremely slow and pushed water up the Mississippi River like we never saw before," Nungesser said.
a bedroom community of 79 homes, lies just outside the massive
hurricane-protection system surrounding New Orleans that protects that
city and outlining areas. A 15-foot storm surge from Isaac quickly
overwhelmed levees protecting the community and poured into streets and
homes, said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who has
studied the area's hurricane protection system.
The levees, once overtopped, made matters worse. "Once water gets in, it's a bathtub," he said.
Shaffer Sr., 53, a custom cabinetmaker, and Jesse Shaffer Jr., 25, an
ER nurse, hadn't planned on rescuing neighbors. Like others in
Braithwaite, they figured Isaac would bring a few feet of water --
nothing like the floods up to the roof awnings they received from
Katrina, a much bigger storm, Shaffer Jr. said.
The pair evacuated
other family members, secured their home and stuck around to monitor
the water. When it began climbing at an alarming rate, they drove to a
nearby levee and watched as water swallowed roads and overwhelmed their
neighborhood. "I've never seen it rise up that quickly," Shaffer Jr.
Shaffer Sr. borrowed a friend's boat and began going house
to house, looking for stranded neighbors. One was holed up in an attic.
Another floated on a truck tire.
"Most of these were friends," he said. "At least we knew where to find them."
around 5:30 a.m., Shaffer Jr. used his iPhone to post a one-line
message on his Facebook site, asking if anyone needed help in
Braithwaite. Within moments, the site filled up with pleas for help --
59 in all.
"223 oak on the second floor man women [sic] and newborn," one reply read.
"5761 Jones in the attic," another said.
Another: "Please get my dad Jesse 3496 hwy 39 the house with the green metal roof."
with addresses, Shaffer Jr. jumped into a 22-foot Carolina Skiff with a
member of the Woodlawn Fire Department and went searching for
residents. On their first trip out into the choppy water, as wind gusts
hammered the boat, they heard screams and found a family of five huddled
on the roof of a trailer home. Less than a foot of roof poked out of
the water, Shaffer Jr. said.
"We didn't even see them," he said.
"We heard them." They dropped them off at the levee and motored back
into the submerged community.
Soon after, they found 10 mostly
elderly residents trapped in a rapidly flooding home. Shaffer Jr. said
he gave up his seat on the boat and waited on the roof of the house for
an hour until the boat returned for him. As wind and rain pelted him, he
answered Facebook messages and jotted down more addresses.
Shaffer Sr. was on his cellphone, calling residents and rescuing them
from homes. One of them was Natasha Morgan, 32, a college student who
had decided to ride out the storm with her boyfriend, Domingo De Los
Reyes, in the upstairs bedroom of her mother's two-story home. Morgan
woke up in the middle of the night Aug. 29 to see water rushing into her
home and creeping up the stairs, she said.
Before she had time to
panic, Shaffer Sr. called her cellphone. He was on his way. The boat
arrived just as water reached their calves in the second-story bedroom,
Morgan said. The couple climbed out a window and into the boat and were
taken to the levee. As she dried off in a parked truck, Morgan watched
as Shaffer Sr. motored the boat back into the neighborhood and returned
10 minutes later with a shivering woman holding a baby. He dropped them
off, turned the boat around and went back in.
"He was determined
to rescue every single person there," Morgan said. "It's crazy. You
never think there are still people like that in the world."
Shaffers continued their boat trips well into Wednesday, Aug.30,
rescuing more residents and, later, their pets. They couldn't get
everyone: A couple were later found drowned in their Braithwaite home,
becoming two of the handful of Isaac's storm-related fatalities.
father-son efforts to save the residents of Braithwaite have won them
local and national recognition. In a televised Skype broadcast on Sept.
11, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres presented the family with a $20,000
check to pay for rent for a year while they rebuild their ruined home.
Jesse Shaffer Sr. shrugs off the notoriety.
"There were a lot of people out there like us," he said. "I'm just glad we had the resources to go get them."