The last 24 hours has been the worst – but in many respects, the best – day of our lives. We are alive, our family is safe and together. We are still getting used to being called “displaced,” which is not easy.
My wife Audrey and I are parents of five children. Our oldest, Lily Faith is eight, then we have our five-year-old Justin and three 13-month-old triplets boys (Abel, Ryder and Jaxson). We live in Fort Bend County in Richmond, Texas. Our house is two miles from the Brazos River.
In the wee hours of Monday morning the police started going door to door in neighborhoods telling people to leave. Simultaneously the county judge announced mandatory evacuation for several different levee districts in our county because the Brazos River, which is one of the longest rivers in the U.S., was expected to reach an “800-year high” of 59 feet (Just for context, the Brazos River floods at 45 feet.)
First thing in the morning we had to determine how to leave Fort Bend County in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The police couldn’t give us much help with the best route. We just had to guess using evacuation routes accessed via Twitter. Making matters worse, the police website did not work (probably because there were so many people trying to use it), and understandably the police didn’t answer the phone (they were too busy rescuing people). We waited on hold, but then it was time to go.
We drove through Waco, and remembered that we know Chip and Joanna Gaines. Joanna's mom Nan welcomed us, prayed the most beautiful prayer over us, gave us food, a Target gift card, and then took Justin and Lily Faith for a few moments of needed distraction at Magnolia.
It became an every-man-for-himself situation.
We grabbed our triplet stroller and a duffle bag of diapers. We didn’t have much time. Quickly threw in phone chargers, some clothes, some nuts from Costco, and my wife’s hair dryer. We grabbed toothbrushes. Enough diapers for two days. Baby food. -- We’ve run out of all of that already!
You’re so scattered in that moment because you’re worried about your children.
We tried to stay as calm as possible around Lily Faith and Justin – to try not to scar them for life. But they are pretty intelligent children.
Usually on Monday morning, we are taking them to school, but this is a Monday they will not forget. “We have to evacuate,” we told them. Justin asked what any five-year-old would ask, “What does evac-ooo-ate” mean?
Lily began to cry.
Here’s two grocery bags. “Take whatever you want to put in it,” we said.
Our oldest son put his Power Ranger stuffed toy in the bag and his Paw Patrol Look-out headquarters!
Could you imagine being that age and having to pick what you wanted to take with you?
Justin asked us, “Daddy are we going to lose everything?”
Lily keeps asking, “When are we going to go home?”
We pray family prayers together every night before bed.
On Monday night our five-year-old prayed, “God, protect our house, our neighbors and their horses.”
Could you imagine your five-year-old praying that?
As a mom, sitting in the passenger seat, you are saying, “Jeremiah, slow down” as you try to make your way out.
I had to drive our vehicle contra-flow on 99 to evacuate. Hazards on, flashing lights, honking our horn, hoping no one hit us head on.
And it’s life or death.
And I know it. I have everything in my life that matters to me in that car.
It was honestly like an apocalyptic scene right out of “The Walking Dead” -- You’re heading out and the National Guard is headed in.
We tried six different evacuation routes. We came upon a Sheriff and told him the road we were headed to. He must have been placed there by God. He told us, “don’t go that way, those road’s are impassable.”
We made our escape out of Richmond on 59. Our route was circuitous. As we made our way north one town had been ripped apart by a tornado just days before. And you’re looking right into what was once people’s living rooms. Animals left behind roaming abandoned towns.
By this time it’s 10 a.m.… and we had been driving for hours.
Looking towards the back of the car, watching our 5-year-old just stare out the window at everything. Just watching in sheer amazement.
As we were going the opposite direction on the highway, I was looking back at Lily Faith, and as her mom, I could tell she was just looking out the window, scared and wondering what was happening. “You have to calm your eight-year-old daughter so that she doesn’t get sick,” I thought.
As a dad, I started crying talking to our kids last night, saying, “You both were so brave today I’m so proud of you.”
When you are evacuating nothing is simple. You go where roads are open. We just had to get north of I-10 and by God’s grace we did. We crossed a bridge near highways 71 and 77 that was being barricaded by National Guard. We were one of the last cars through.
We drove through Waco. And we thought who do we know here? And then we remembered that we know the Gaineses. [Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper” fame who own and operate Magnolia Homes.]
We finally found a gas station with fuel in Waco. Our family of seven showed up at Magnolia in our pajamas. Other people looked at us the way you might expect, but not Nan Stevens. Joanna’s mother. Mrs. Stevens welcomed us, prayed the most beautiful prayer over us. She gave us food, a Target gift card, and then took Justin and Lily Faith for a few moments of needed distraction at Magnolia.
And only then did I feel like our lives were no longer in danger and that we had made it out.
On Tuesday, when I woke up, it felt like PTSD and I thought about that drive. Re-living those moments on the bridge driving in the opposite direction just to leave town, one of the bridges we crossed was so narrow. There was no shoulder. If we had met another car coming in the opposite direction…
We drove to Dallas because that is where we have the greatest concentration of friends. And it’s far enough out of Houston that we can be safe.
We found a familiar hotel in Dallas. The manager has been so gracious. It’s hard to accommodate a family of seven. I asked her, “Do you have three pack-N-plays?” She responded, “Sir, if we don’t, we’ll go to Walmart and get them for you.”
I’ve never been happier to walk into a hotel room in my life.
There’s no playbook for the experience so many Houstonians are facing. Many of my colleagues and their families have been rescued from flooded homes. We cannot return to our home. We don’t know what tomorrow holds.
Please, keep praying for everyone. It’s not over yet. Pray for all the responders. Pray for the city. Pray for those who were not able to evacuate and are stranded. Pray for our children and all the children hurting. Our faith has keeps us strong because the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Jeremiah J. Johnston, Ph.D., is president of Christian Thinkers Society, a Resident Institute at Houston Baptist University where he also serves at Associate Professor of Early Christianity.