Spotlight Interview: Jeremiah Johnston on Harvey evacuation, “We would just keep calling on the name of Jesus.”August 31, 2017
Hurricane Harvey is affecting 13 million people directly and it’s affecting all of us indirectly. We want to have a conversation today with a person directly affected by the storm, his name is Jeremiah Johnston. He’s a professor at Houston Baptist University, but today he’s just a dad of five little kids who received a mandatory evacuation order in Houston. He and his wife Audrey found a way to get their kids out and he shares his story:
What was really, I think, the most difficult part for audiences, we got on 99 which is a major toll way, highway in Houston. We got all the way down to I-10 and it was closed. I had to turn our family vehicle around and drive contraflow, which means I was driving in the opposite direction of oncoming traffic on a freeway with our family of seven.
I said, “Audrey, what can we do?” Water was surrounding us. You couldn’t hop a median. I said, “We just have to pray and ask God to send his angels to protect us.” I stepped on the gas and we went and he protected us. I exited the freeway on the on ramp.
We just were in a spirit of prayer, we never stopped praying. If we had to make a decision about which way to turn, “God show us or lead us. Jesus, help us.”
Anytime we find ourselves in our place of adversity the beauty of the message of Christianity is that God is with us in that place of adversity. We’re told in Hebrews that Jesus, and especially in the Greek, never, never, never, never, never will leave us. He will never forsake us. Whether you’re driving the opposite way on a freeway into oncoming traffic, Jesus is with you there. If you’re stranded right now in the shelter listening to this broadcast or podcast or however you’re listening to it, God is with you.
Listen to our interview:
Carmen: Jeremiah Johnston, welcome to The Reconnect.
Jeremiah: So great to be back on and I can’t thank you and your family enough for your prayers for our family. I know you have personally been praying with your family all weekend for us and, Carmen, I just want you to know how thankful we are.
Carmen: Well, Jeremiah, for us to physically get out of bed reading what you wrote two nights ago we just got on our knees for you guys and we prayed for you. We recognize that those were the prayers of many people across the country for many families like yours so I want to thank you for sharing your story in a way that the rest of us across the country can begin to apprehend what’s happening and so I just want to invite you to tell us your story.
Jeremiah: Well, thanks for that. I just thank you and your audience just more than anything for your prayers because our family is joining 130,000 other families in Fort Bend County which is the second most populace country in Houston. We live very close to the Brazos River and we are under mandatory evacuation as you just said in your introduction. We live within the Pecan Grove Levy District and on Sunday night what happened, we were just sheltering in place. We were just doing what they said to do, what the mayor said to do, stay put, don’t do anything, shelter in place.
We got supplies, we bought 50 lbs. of ice in case our power went out. We bought five gallons of milk because our triplet boys go through a gallon of milk each day so we figured okay, if we had five or six days we’ll be okay. Then that just escalating so quickly by Sunday night when you and I were tweeting each other. The judge came on and said they were expecting an 800 year high with the Brazos River based on the weather forecast, that by Tuesday night the river could be 59 feet. It floods at 45 feet. He said, “This is catastrophic, we do not have models, we do not have procedures for this kind of flooding. We have a levy that’s prepared for a 100 year flood, not an 800 year flood. You need to get out with your family now.”
The problem is when people hear evacuate if you’ve not lived through it … By the way, this is our first experience of a hurricane and a flood. We don’t have a lot of experience going through natural disasters, it’s hard to know, “Okay, what is the evacuation route?” Monday morning, in the wee hours of the morning we had to grab our kids. We had to, at first light in our pajamas even, leave the city. I had taken some time to look at five or six recommended evacuation routes and that’s where it got really crazy because five of those six were flooded and impassable.
Carmen: One of the things that you write is, once you guys actually got into the vehicle to head out you say, “I have everything in my life that matters to me in that car.” I want you to just give people a sense of the responsibility that you and Audrey were experiencing as parents. You’re at that point past the stage where you’re trying to imagine scenarios where you get five little kids onto the roof, three of them 13 months old. Now you’ve packed them into a car, you’ve told them each they can put whatever they want from their rooms in a grocery bag and that’s really all they can take. They’re wondering whether or not they’re ever going to see their stuff again and their house. Now you guys are in the car. What are you feeling at that point?
Then, as you go down each one of those routes and it’s flooded, and then the next one’s flooded, the next one’s flooded, just give us a sense … I mean, we can imagine but actually just tell us that part of the story.
Jeremiah: Well, we left and there’s actually, for those of you that might have security cameras, it was a little eerie later when we got to safety Monday night and I was able to check my email. I got an email from ADT, our security company, because we have our cameras set up to where if there’s activity early in the morning hours it’ll email us a snapshot. I actually saw photos of Audrey running into our car barefoot, holding her Super Star shows in her hand, jumping in our suburban as we fled from our house. It was surreal because it was first light and our neighbors, their houses are all flooded, and we began to go through those routes that we had planned meticulously.
We tried to call the Richmond Police, they were of no help. I love the police but they could not tell us what roads. They were absolutely maxed. There is no infrastructure when you’re evacuating 130,000 people within a few hours notice, that’s what people need to understand. You have to use your head and you have to keep your head. A lot of people, when their day of adversity, when their crucible comes, they panic and they get paralyzed. I was getting calls from some friends whose spouses just were paralyzed by this, they didn’t know what to do. I said, “You have to get out now.”
What was really, I think, the most difficult part for audiences, we got on 99 which is a major toll way, highway in Houston. We got all the way down to I-10 and it was closed. I had to turn our family vehicle around and drive contraflow, which means I was driving in the opposite direction of oncoming traffic on a freeway with our family of seven. We’re crossing two bridges, the second one was a bridge over 1093 that’s a much larger bridge with no clearance, there’s no visibility and there’s no shoulder. I am freaking out. I have to tell you guys, I’m a man of faith, I’m a professor, I’m a speaker, I’m a Christian but I am freaking out at this point because like you said I have triplet babies in the back strapped in. I have a seven-year-old, or excuse me, an eight-year-old and a five-year-old.
I said, “Audrey, what can we do?” Water was surrounding us. You couldn’t hop a median. I said, “We just have to pray and ask God to send his angels to protect us.” I stepped on the gas and we went and he protected us. I exited the freeway on the on ramp, if that makes sense, and then had to backtrack and got to 59 Highway and that was the way we were able to exit. That was the only way, the sixth way out. Then we took a very circuitous route. Think of the worst apocalyptic movie you’ve seen because just getting out of the county wasn’t the end of the ordeal because so many … Remember, this hurricane just sat over the region and we’re driving through tornado ripped towns.
It wasn’t until we got to Waco, which anyone can see a map will see how far Waco is from Houston, that we had a working gas station where we could stop and fuel up and get sustenance. It was a very real time disaster, it still is an emergency. I watched the Emergency Management Message last night on Facebook at about 11 pm. We can’t return to our home right now so we’re a family of seven in a hotel. Yes, we’re thankful to be alive. I ran into a sheriff when we exited on 59. He redirected me, I was going the wrong way. He said all those roads are shut down and I just thank God for putting that sheriff right in my path and he said go this way.
The last bridge we crossed the National Guard was coming down on I-77. We crossed that bridge and they barricaded it and I think we were one of the last cars through.
Carmen: You guys now are in the Dallas area?
Jeremiah: That’s correct, we’re in a hotel room with a family of seven so that has its own, that’ll drive you crazy in a whole different way.
Carmen: Well, Jeremiah, you are a man of faith and you are a person who recognizes the goodness and the greatness of God and the grace of God and the provision of God. I want you to speak a word of hope to your neighbors who did not evacuate or did not get out as fast as you guys got out and they’re going to be there in the context of that flood until the water recedes. Can you just speak a word of hope to them?
Jeremiah: Well, the beauty of the New Testament is, anytime we find ourselves in our place of adversity the beauty of the message of Christianity is that God is with us in that place of adversity. We’re told in Hebrews that Jesus, and especially in the Greek, never, never, never, never, never will leave us. He will never forsake us. Whether you’re driving the opposite way on a freeway into oncoming traffic Jesus is with you there. If you’re stranded right now in the shelter listening to this broadcast or podcast or however you’re listening to it, God is with you. The Christian faith is built for adversity and we should never be surprised by it, that is the beauty of our faith and really the test of our faith is how we respond to that adversity.
The real delight of, as I reflect on what we’ve been through, Audrey and I prayed. What we did, I said, “Audrey, what did we do the last two days?” We just were in a spirit of prayer, we never stopped praying. If we had to make a decision about which way to turn, “God show us or lead us. Jesus, help us.” We would just keep calling on the name of Jesus. Then getting your friends to pray for you and your family safe. You know, the Apostle Paul was never ashamed to ask people to pray for him and I have not been ashamed to ask people to pray. This is unprecedented. As you just said, a million people could be displaced. We need God’s people to pray.
I think we’re already seeing that because the worst is not happening. The Brazos River is not going to get to 59 feet, it might get to 56 feet. Now, that’s still a 100 year record but people are praying and things are improving. Be encouraged. When we look at the New Testament we see the men and women who suffered. God did not give them an immediate way of escape more often than not. I wish that every situation could be a Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego situation. What we see in the New Testament is Jesus being with those people suffering with them and being the faithful God that he is to us. I take refuge in that but it is okay to talk about how we hurt.
When you look at II Corinthians, Chapter One, the apostle Paul said, “I do not want you to be ignorant, my brothers, of what we experienced in Asia. We were burdened beyond measure.” We can relive the past but we don’t live there. We learn from it, we move forward, we allow our faith to grow. It’s wonderful programs like these that just pulled up the flag of faith. That’s why I’m so thankful for your friendship and your prayers for our family in this difficult time because there’s a lot of unknowns. We don’t know when we can get home. We’re just living right now day by day trusting God.
Carmen: Jeremiah, I want to remind people how they can find you. You can find him on Twitter, that’s a very effective place to communicate with him. He’s Jeremiah Johnston. What’s your Twitter handle because I don’t have it right in front of me this minute.
Jeremiah: Sure, it’s @_jeremiahj. Then our website is christianthinkers.com.
Carmen: HBU is where you ordinarily hang your shingle and do your work. I know that we are praying with you for the students there at HBU and other faculty members. You may not know this yet but we know this because we’ve been in touch with them. I do know that Kay Busiek and her husband were air lifted out.
Carmen: I know. They’re safe but there will be harrowing stories to be told. We want to thank you for your story and for sharing it with us. It is an unfolding conversation. Thank you for having this part of it here today on air. I look very much forward to having an ongoing conversation with you because this is going to be a long term story, not just in the lives of individuals but in the lives of not only the Houston community or the state of Texas but really our nation. I’m looking forward to how God uses this for his own glory and to give the church an opportunity to be the church in really unique and powerful ways.
Jeremiah: That’s right. I’m not a professor right now, I’m not a thinker, I am a father and I’m into disaster relief. That’s my focus and I don’t want to just relieve my family I want to help my neighbors. I would just encourage people just to find ways you can help. Find people who are hurting and be there with them, be present.
Carmen: Absolutely. Hey, Jeremiah, thank you so much. Our continuing prayers and the offer of hospitality remains open.
Jeremiah: Well, thank you. Audrey and I love you and your program and we just can’t thank you for standing with us in prayer like you have, we can’t thank you enough. Appreciate you and appreciate your time.
Photo credit: Department of Defense, public domain