Shaffers of Central Saved 130 Lives

Shaffers of Central Saved 130 Lives

On Monday, March 25, 2013, Jesse Shaffer III and his son Jesse IV were honored at Arlington National Cemetery with one of the nation’s highest civilian awards, the Citizen “Service Before Self” Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Jesse III, 54, a native of Central and 1976 graduate of Central High School, and Jesse IV, 26, saved 120 of their neighbors on Aug. 29, 2012, during Hurricane Isaac in Plaquemines Parish.

In Central, the Shaffer family is known as cabinetmakers.  B&B Cabinets is located at 15053 Greenwell Springs Road next to the Shaffer home.  Shirley Shaffer and her late husband Jesse Jr. had five children — Jessie III, Charles, Darryl, Jeff, and Lisa — and “We’re proud of all five of them!” she said.

But Miss Shirley’s heart unquestionably beat with a little extra pride on March 25 when Jesse III and Jesse IV were two of the four people in America honored at Arlington National Cemetery during Medal of Honor Day.  The wreath-laying was at 2 p.m. and the awards ceremonies at 2:30 p.m.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society was created by Congress to recognize winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The Society in turn created the Citizen

“Service Above Self” Award to recognize  civilians who have shown extraordinary courage.  After Hurricane Katrina devastated much of South Louisiana in 2005, a 26-foot high protective wall was built to protect residents of St. Bernard Parish.  But nearby residents of the community of Braithwaite in Plaquemines Parish were just outside the wall’s protection.  They had only an eight-foot levee to protect them.

On the evening of Aug. 28, 2012, Hurricane Isaac was pounding Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.  Plaquemines Parish was under a mandatory evacuation order.  The Shaffer family decided to split up.  Wife Suzanne and daughter Amanda evacuated, while Jesse III and son Jesse IV stayed at home to try to protect their property.  They were within a few feet of the 26-foot high protective wall and felt they could make it to safety if necessary.

The Shaffer’s home had been destroyed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  They were afraid of losing everything again.

Braithwaite was in a dangerous position — much like a soup bowl.  If water topped the levee, it would fill up the bowl and be slow to drain off.  During the early morning hours of Aug. 29, 2012, the flood waters did top the levee and rushed over Braithewaite, reaching a depth of 18 to 20 feet.  By 3:30 a.m. the Shaffer’s home was inundated.  Many of their neighbors had also stayed behind, and Jesse III and Jesse IV knew that those neighbors were in peril.

Acting on their own and without help from government, Jesse III and Suzanne’s brother Lanny La-France commandeered a boat and went to search for neighbors.  Jesse III wouldn’t let Jesse IV go with him until daylight.  Jesse III tried to call neighbors by phone, while Jesse IV stayed in their truck behind the protective wall and sent messages on Facebook by text, trying to find out who was trapped in their homes.

In the surging waters, heavy rain, and high winds with downed power lines all around, Jesse III and Lanny went from house to house, looking for neighbors.

After the sun began to provide a little light, they were joined by assistant volunteer fire chief Jimmy Kamm and Jesse IV in a second boat.

The volunteer fire department and the sheriff’s office were unable to enter the area.

With each load, the Shaffer’s team brought eight to 10 people to the safety of the St. Bernard side of the 26-foot high floodwall.

People were stranded on rooftops and in attics.  In some cases, the team had to break through the roofs to let stranded neighbors out of their attics.

Some of those who stayed behind were elderly and suffered from heart problems, diabetes, and other ailments.

During one rescue, the boat was full and Jesse IV stayed on the rooftop for 90 minutes, waiting for the rescue boat to return for him.

Suzanne Shaffer told of her husband’s actions.  “Down here, everyone knows everyone.  He couldn’t let them drown!”

Two parish workers had stayed to work in the pumping station.  But the water came too fast, and they couldn’t get to safety.  They had been floating on a spare tire for two hours when Jesse III found and rescued them.

In perhaps the most dramatic and moving rescue, Jesse III was looking for a family of five.  It consisted of the husband and wife and their three children, all under six and two of them in diapers.

Just as daybreak was coming, he heard screams for help.  When he arrived, he found the family of five on top of a trailer with the water rising over the top.  With the help of the Shaffers, they made it to safety.

The high winds and pelting rain continued all day. By 7 p.m., the Shaffers and their team had rescued more than 120 people — one of the greatest rescue efforts in American history!

It was all done by individual citizens working on their own, risking everything to save their neighbors.

Remarkably, thanks to these extraordinary efforts, only two people died.  Both apparently died in the initial surge of water.

Jesse III grew up on Greenwell Springs Road near Beaver Bayou and the new Central Thruway.  He played football for the Central Wildcats on the 1975 team, which won the District Championship and made it to the state semi-finals.  The team was led by All-State quarterback Steve Ensminger.  The head coach was Sonny Jackson.

Like his father, Jesse III became a cabinet maker.  He married his wife Suzanne, who was from Plaquemines Parish.  Son Jesse IV is a nurse.

The Shaffers were nominated for the Citizen “Service Before Self” Award by Sen. Mary Landrieu.  Sen. David Vitter joined in paying tribute to the father-son duo.  Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said the Shaffers were responsible for saving many lives.

In Central, Shirley Shaffer was asked if she were surprised by the heroism of her son and grandson.

“Not at all!” she laughed.  “It’s something they had to do.”

Central school board member Sharon Browning, who taught Jesse III at Central High, agreed and said it was just what she would expect of him.

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