As Hurricane Ian battered Florida last week, leaving neighborhoods in Naples looking like they had been swallowed by a river, Johnny Lauder dove into the murky, debris-filled waters that others were trying to escape.
“If I would’ve waited, she wouldn’t be here,” Lauder told The Washington Post. “And that’s my mom. I would’ve done it for anybody’s mom or anyone else in that situation. You know, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Forecasts had initially predicted the hurricane would hit the Tampa Bay area, but on Tuesday afternoon, its track veered south. The next day, it became one of the most powerful hurricanes to strike the country in decades, making landfall in southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm.
Naples faced a ferocious storm surge that swamped houses, knocked down power lines and “left the downtown area looking like Atlantis,” Lauder said. The former Chicago police officer and rescue diver said that under those conditions, he was prepared to do anything to save his mother, Karen, whose legs are amputated.
Lauder, his mom and his son all have homes in the same Naples community. They had chosen not to evacuate and did their best to prepare before Ian hit. Once it did, Lauder stayed at his son’s place. His mother stayed home, as she’d insisted.
“She’s a very stubborn 84-year-old woman,” Lauder said. “And she said, ‘You’re not taking me anywhere. I won’t have any privacy. I’m staying home.’ ”
When Ian first arrived, things didn’t seem that bad, he said. But then Lauder took a peek out the windows, and “it was like looking into an aquarium.” The water soon began gushing inside and rising quickly. Lauder’s two sons, his son’s girlfriend and their animals took refuge in the attic. Then he got the call from his mother.
“That’s when I knew I had to bounce,” Lauder said. “So I jumped out of the window and began wading through the water.”
Outside, the signs of destruction were everywhere — power lines were bent, cars were swept away and a hodgepodge of household items was washed up by the surge. But there were also signs that gave Lauder hope, like a caterpillar that managed to cling to his hat and a kneeboard that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“It was like an act of God when the kneeboard just floated in front of me,” he said. “There was nothing on the street and it just appeared, like, ‘Wow, okay, someone’s looking out for me.’ ”
He powered through the half-mile journey in neck-deep, fast-moving water until he finally reached his mom.
“She was the happiest she’s ever been to see me,” Lauder said.
The house looked like a fishbowl. The water was over four feet deep, with furniture, papers and mementos floating all around Lauder’s mother, who was drenched and “shaking like a Chihuahua.” After Lauder wrapped her in a set of dry sheets, he stacked some tables on top of each other, and the two waited inside for the water to recede — by that time, Lauder’s younger son arrived to help pull Karen out of her flooded house.
The three began making their way back to Lauder’s son’s home. But as they were about to leave his mother’s residence, they realized one of Karen’s neighbors needed help. As the sky began to darken, Lauder’s son pushed his grandmother’s wheelchair through the water — which was now below his waist — while Lauder carried the other woman to a hotel.
They were safe.
Recovery operations continue in Florida, where state officials said Sunday that at least 58 people — many older than 60 — had died in the storm. (That toll did not include Charlotte County, where local officials have attributed multiple more deaths to Ian.) In Naples, Lauder’s family lost two homes, almost all of the belongings inside of them and their cars. He’s living with his son until he can find a new place. His mother will join them once she’s out of the hospital, where she’s being treated for infected wounds she got from the bacteria-ridden water.
But Lauder said everything that was lost could be replaced.
“I have my mom, my sons and my job. So I still have my hope,” he said.
The outpouring of support from the community also keeps him going. His sister-in-law, who lives in Miami, organized a GoFundMe account that has raised over $3,400 to help the family start from scratch. Every day, people — many of whom are in similarly devastating situations — show “all sorts of acts of kindness,” Lauder said.
“It sucks that it sometimes takes a natural disaster to make us actually start helping each other,” he said. “But I think these hard times sometimes bring out the best in people.”
During the next hurricane, however, he won’t be around to dive into the water. “I’m going to leave early and make it a vacation with my family,” he said.
And for anyone who might be hesitant to evacuate, Lauder urges them to reconsider.
“Please heed the warnings,” he said. “I’d still save my mother all over again, but it’s definitely better to not stick around.”