In one photo, Johnny Lauder’s 86-year-old mother stands at her home in Florida, almost up to her shoulders in black, murky water, staring straight into the camera, her mouth open.
In another, she lies just above the waterline on a table, wrapped in sheets for warmth. In another, she is pushed through the water in a wheelchair, and her rescue is almost complete.
The photos were taken after Hurricane Ian made landfall last Wednesday, bringing a powerful storm surge and 150 mph winds. They tell the story of Lauder’s journey to rescue his mother, Karen Lauder, from the home she refused to leave, despite the family’s pleas.
he never realized the images would go viral.
“There are so many other things going on right now and I feel like I’m not important, but I guess (the audience) wants to see that there’s some humanity left,” he told the station.
He sent the short videos and photos to his family, letting them know he was fine.
“So I unwittingly documented the whole ordeal,” he said.
Before the storm hit, Lauder said his mother — who lost a leg and needs a wheelchair — was “kicking and screaming” and said she didn’t want to leave her home in Naples, Florida. “We didn’t evacuate because we couldn’t leave her behind,” he explained.
He didn’t expect the level of destruction that Ian would bring. Speaking from his son’s home Tuesday, Lauder said his mom’s home flooded about 6 inches deep during Hurricane Irma in 2017, so he assumed a similar effect to Ian.
Instead, Ian ravaged Florida as one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the US and sent more than 3 feet (91 cm) of water around her home, trapping her inside. She called her son for help.
“She said the water was up to her wheelchair and hitting her belly button,” Lauder said. He took refuge at his son’s house, half a mile (0.8 km) from his mom.
Lauder, who said he is a trained rescue diver, fell out of the window. She swam, walked, waded and kicked through the water for about 45 minutes to get home. He said a van and two cars passed him as he walked away from power poles.
Lauder said he heard his mother scream as he approached.
“It was a sense of dread and relief at the same time,” he said. “The terror was not knowing if something was falling on her or if she was trapped and hurt. But the relief was knowing there was still air in her lungs.”
He placed her on a table and gathered her in dry sheets from a high shelf. She worried about the wounds around her body—open wounds that were dangerously prone to infection in the flooded water from bacteria.
They waited three hours for the water to recede so they could push her through the streets in her wheelchair. When the water was two feet high, he called his 20-year-old son to join them and help push the grandmother to safety.
Around 1 am – about 11 hours after Lauder’s mother called him for help – Lauder returned to his older son’s home with his mother and younger son.
Lauder said his mother was later taken to a hospital because she had some infections. “But they’ve been looked after and she’s warm. She’s in a soft comfortable bed. She’s fine,” she added.
Cassandra Clark, Lauder’s sister-in-law in Miami, started a GoFundMe to raise money for Lauder, his mother and his sons.
“While we are so thankful that our family is physically okay, they lost everything in this storm and unfortunately had no renter’s insurance,” Clark wrote.
The page has raised more than $17,000 as of Tuesday.
“I’m overwhelmed that all these people are helping me and they don’t even know me,” Lauder said.
He hopes people will now know to evacuate. “My mom changed her tune: she’ll evacuate next time,” he said. “I hope people learn from other people’s mistakes rather than their own.”
By late Tuesday, CBS News had confirmed that at least 108 people had died from the storm — 104 in Florida and another 4 in North Carolina.