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After Harvey Hit, A Houston-Based Novelist Forged Floodwaters To Reach His Mother


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to end the week by checking in with our contributor Mat Johnson, who lives in a new subdivision in metropolitan Houston. He just moved into his home last December. We called him to see how he's doing and were relieved to find he's one of the very lucky ones. His home, where he lives with his wife and children, was not flooded. But he'd been worried about his mother who lives nearby in a senior independent living facility. That wasn't flooded either, but she has MS and mild dementia and needs a caregiver, and her caregiver couldn't get to the facility. Mat couldn't reach anyone at the facility by phone, so he was determined to drive there and bring his mother to his home. And although his home wasn't flooded, the roads around him were.

MAT JOHNSON: At times you're driving through places that have flooded, but the water's receded. So it just looks like any other day. And you look out and you think - oh, I'm just imagining this whole thing. It's blowing out of proportion. It's just another storm. And then you turn a corner, and a place that's supposed to be a parking lot or church or a building, it's just a river. And it kind of knocks you back into reality again. For me, I didn't know if I was going to get all the way through. I'd done Twitter searches on different roads to see which ones were dry. I got there just by being slow and kind of not losing control of my emotions. And it gets hard when, you know, you see the devastation. You see the people around.

The second night after the flooding, my family took donations to a couple of the shelters. The mood in some of the shelters was surprisingly pleasant because there was so much love being shown, to be quite honest. And it was also very much a specifically Texan spirit of independence. If that streak had not been there, a lot of people would not have been saved in time because civilians were on the water saving people a while before FEMA got here.

GROSS: Phyllis, one of our producers who produces you for our show - she produces your commentaries - she was telling me that you saw a lot of vultures. Was that when you were on the road trying to get your mother?

JOHNSON: Well, I'd seen a lot of vultures in my neighborhood, and I'd seen a bunch on the road. We had one on our roof, which was very creepy (laughter). But there's a lot of dead animals around. The small animals that couldn't get away - they're all laying out there, so the vultures are having a field day.

GROSS: And I should mention here that your phone signal keeps going in and out on us. I guess reception is still pretty bad?

JOHNSON: Reception's bad. I mean, if you were here right now in the part of Houston I live in, things would look completely normal. All the water that is up where I am in the north part of the city is flowing down into the Houston Ship Channel. And it goes through the city through the bayous to do that. And a lot of those bayous are at capacity already, and many of them have not crested yet. They have not reached their limit.

So when the initial hurricane comes in, you always get scared about the hurricane. Is the wind going to come in - and that destructive force? And after that initial hurricane passes through, there is this sort of a sigh of relief that happens. Like, my house didn't get blown down, you know? It's not - I didn't have "The Three Little Pigs" situation. But then right after that, the water starts to pool together. That's when you start to get the flooding, and that's actually the more dangerous part.

GROSS: What condition did you find your mother and her facility where she lives in when you got there?

JOHNSON: Well, my mother was pretty decent. She needs helpers. She didn't have them. So when I got there, she was kind of, you know, covered in trash. I mean, she had been getting food from the building, but those boxes of food were being dropped right next her wheelchair. No one was there to take care of her.

GROSS: Your mother has some dementia in addition to MS. Does she understand what happened in the hurricane, and does she understand what you went through in order to come get her and bring her to your home?

JOHNSON: No. That was one of the wild things. She didn't have TV. So my mother had decided she was the least fortunate person in all of Texas just sitting in her house. So she didn't understand the scope of what happened until we came outside. I don't know. I think - you know, I don't have dementia, and I'm having a real hard time processing everything that went on.

GROSS: Mat, you did a piece for us just a few months ago about how your computer crashed, you lost your computer memory, including the novel that you were writing. And you talked about what that loss meant and what it was that you still had and how you valued what you still had. So now you're surrounded by people who've kind of lost everything. And I guess I'm wondering what your frame of mind is like now.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, I feel incredibly fortunate that I was one of the two thirds that didn't have those issues. And I feel for those people immensely. You know, it's hard to - you know, I can't imagine what many of them are going through. I know for myself, when we didn't know if the lake was going to crest, I wasn't worried about my brand new house, which I love (laughter).

I was worried about my family. I was worried about my kids, my wife. I was worried about my mom. And, you know, the rest of it could float away. And know I don't say that lightly. I've worked my whole life to get what I have. But the things that mattered were the people. And I got to say, like, I don't know what everybody was thinking who'd been rescued from their homes, who had lost so much. But there was a sort of joy that they were alive and the people they loved were alive. And, you know, you have another day to live and do what actually matters.

GROSS: So how are you getting along with your mother now that she's moved back in with you temporarily?

JOHNSON: It's driving me nuts.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: My pitbull keeps looking at her Pomeranian trying to figure out if I brought over a new friend or takeout. And we're, you know - but we're good.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad to hear that you and your family and your home are all good. That's a relief. Thank you, Mat. It's always a pleasure to talk with you.

JOHNSON: Thank you, likewise.

GROSS: Mat Johnson is a FRESH AIR contributor and novelist and teaches in the University of Houston creative writing program. Our thoughts are with everyone who's been in the path of Harvey and have homes and lives they have to rebuild. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.