ORRUM — Like many people, Chris Britt was watching the news on TV on Aug. 26, which was a Saturday, as Hurricane Harvey plowed into Texas, where it would linger for a few days, dumping as many as 52 inches of rain and causing deadly flooding.
Days later Britt came home a hero after rescuing dozens of Texans from the floodwaters. It’s a story of a lifetime, one Britt and his two partners, Gary Bisbee and David Pittman, will never forget.
“When we were watching the hurricane on TV Saturday, my 3-year-old daughter started crying,” Britt said. “She said, ‘Daddy, those people are going to die.’ I decided to go to Texas, right there.”
On Aug. 27, Britt left his wife Marrisa and their five children, including 3-year-old Chrisa Leigh Britt, and with his two buddies jumped into the truck filled with bottled water and pulling a 14-foot john boat with a 35-horsepower Evinrude motor and headed out from Orrum on a 20-hour trip. They stopped in Houston and Dayton before launching their boat in Beaumont, Texas, population 118,000.
“It was still raining on Monday, and there was a chemical plant they said was about to explode,” Britt said. “We were 10 miles from it.”
The Robeson County team hooked up with the now-famous Cajun Navy. They used walkie-talkies and cell phones to locate people stranded in their homes.
“It was crazy,” Britt said. “People were dying. There were electrocutions and snakes were in people’s homes. There were looters, and you could hear gunfire.”
The resulting floods inundated hundreds of thousands of homes, displaced more than 30,000 people, and prompted more than 17,000 rescues. Seventy-one people died. None of that deterred Britt, Bisbee and Pittman as they set off on their first rescue.
“The first couple we brought out were in their 70s,” Britt said. “The man had been stationed at Cherry Point in North Carolina as a Marine.
“We saw the dog first,” he said. “My partner (Pittman) got into the house and went upstairs, where the woman was. She was upset and crying.”
Rescues continued until the trio got a call from the Cajun Navy to go on the other side of Interstate 10. Things got dangerous.
“It was like whitewater it was moving so fast,” Britt said. “We ran into a (submerged) guardrail, and my motor cut off. We got swept by the current and hit another guardrail and put a few dents in my boat.”
Britt estimates they rescued nearly 50 people from Monday through Friday. The number of people stranded in their homes was overwhelming. They transported elderly people in wheelchairs and with walkers. Britt believes some of the elderly might have died without help from volunteers like himself.
They also transported pets that residents refused to leave behind. Conditions were harsh, and the Robeson rescue team got very little sleep. Except for one night in a church, they slept in their truck.
“We didn’t eat anything for four days except honeybuns and crackers,” Britt said. “It wore me out.My body was beat up some. I had chest waders and pulled the boat a lot.”
Heroism often comes with a price tag.
“It cost us about $1,800 for gas, water and food,” Britt said. “It was well worth it.
“We accomplished what we set out to do,” he said. “To see the smiles on people’s faces when we got to them was the reward. The old people and the kids we rescued got the best of me.”
The devastation was incredible even for three men who has lived through Hurricane Matthew. Bisbee’s home was flooded a year ago during the storm.
“There was water up to rooftops and 18-wheelers completely under water,” Britt said. “We drove through one place with water halfway up my truck door. The boat was floating in the trailer.”
Back in Orrum, where he was born and has lives all his life, Britt has a few dents in his boat to show for bragging rights. He rejects the suggestion that he is a hero.
“I’m just a citizen with a boat,” he said. “People would have died.”