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Oct 18 2017

‘Oh no, not again’: Volunteer firefighter plunges back in to help his fellow citizens

Posted by TransCanada
Houston floodwaters

In late August, Hurricane Harvey brought record-setting levels of water to the Houston area.

Hurricane Harvey brought a bout of déjà vu to Chris Wheeler, a TransCanada contractor and volunteer firefighter. Back in April 2016, he was waist-deep in flood waters, pulling people from their semi-submerged vehicles in Klein, Texas, a suburb of Houston, following what had been an incomprehensible 24 inches of rain in just over 48 hours.

Fast forward to August 2017, and Wheeler once again found himself waist-deep in water as more than 50 inches of rain pounded the Houston area. Remarkably, Hurricane Harvey was the third flood Wheeler had experienced in two years. This time the flooding was twice as heavy as the previous two floods he'd endured.

"By Sunday, Aug. 27, our department alone performed 300 water rescues," Wheeler said. "Later in the week, we just lost track. There were so many. And that was just in Klein."

Chris Wheeler, volunteer fire fighter

Chris Wheeler navigates both the roads and waters as a volunteer firefighter.

Reporting for duty

For Wheeler, Harvey began on the evening of Friday, Aug. 25. He reported to the fire station in his capacity as senior captain.

"The chief ordered everybody to staff the stations. So I got home from work, changed clothes, packed my stuff and went to the fire station," Wheeler said.

One of his first tasks was to deploy apparatus from his station, such as the command station truck, a self-sufficient command center with onboard power, computers, televisions and global positioning system.

"Fire chiefs and the Red Cross coordinated all their water rescues (in Klein) from that truck," Wheeler explained. His station also deployed a fire engine and rescue boat.

As requests for evacuation came in, the chiefs would prioritize and then dispatch crews of three two firefighters and an operator in Klein Volunteer Fire Department boats.

"By Sunday, Aug. 27, our department alone performed 300 water rescues.
Chris Wheeler, volunteer firefighter and TransCanada contractor

While no two rescues were exactly alike, there were patterns.

"We would navigate to the home using GPS coordinates and a map," said Wheeler. "Typically, the residents had evacuated to the second floor, although we got a lot of people down from roofs. We would approach the window, tie off the boat and then assist people from the window into the boat."

"Most of the people we evacuated were pretty calm. They were stressed, for sure. And some were in shock," he added.

Wheeler became well practiced at getting a wheelchair through a window and into a boat.

"You focus first on medical emergencies. Then the elderly and the parents with little children. And the pets. Lots of pets."

And all the while, it rained and rained. "And it got really windy. It was bad."

But neither gloom of night nor high water meant the fire department's work came to a halt.

Everyday heroes

Thankfully, Wheeler and his wife and two sons didn't suffer any significant damage at their home. Other than working a 70-hour week in treacherous waters and seeing his fellow humans suffering, Wheeler is none the worse for wear.

"[Wheeler] is a really humble guy. He never talks much about his involvement with these heroic efforts, and that's one of the reasons he is a true hero," said Bill Leeder, Wheeler's leader and the director of outsourcing for Rileys. "There were times when he will have worked most of the night, but he always showed up to work the next morning with a smile on his face and no mention of the hardships he endured the night before."

"The personal sacrifice he and his family have made for many years is a tribute to his passion for serving others," Leeder added.

Having experienced three floods in two years, Wheeler remains philosophical.

"Like I said, this is what we trained to do. This is how we serve our community. If it happens again, we do it again."

During Hurricane Harvey, 52 inches of rain fell on Houston, Texas. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average adult female height is 63.8 inches (approximately five feet four inches) in the United States.

Harvey by the numbers

  • According to the National Weather Service, Hurricane Harvey dumped 51.8 inches of rain over a large area in and near Houston.
  • Harris County reported that at the height of the flooding, 530 square miles of the county were under water. That's an area larger than the city of Chicago.
  • The National Weather Service estimates that Harvey hit Texas with 15 to 20 trillion gallons of water.
  • An estimated 72,000 people were rescued from their homes by boat in Texas and Louisiana.
  • ABC News quoted Harris County Judge Ed Emmett as estimating 30,000 to 40,000 homes were destroyed and another 100,000 suffered serious damage.
  • At least 70 deaths were reported.