As flooding from Hurricane Ian inundated Naples, Florida, with at least six feet of storm surge, a man was filmed using a wakeboard to paddle into town and rescue his elderly, disabled mother from water that was almost up to her face .
Johnny Lauder, a former police officer and trained rescue diver, and his mother had not been removed before the Category 5 hurricane hit Florida.
“My mom is 84 years old, she’s in a wheelchair, she’s an amputee. She only has one leg and she’s stubborn, I’d say lightly,” Mr Lauder told the Weather Channel on Tuesday. “He refused to leave. He said he was going to fight me by kicking or screaming. He wasn’t going to leave the house.”
Waiting out the storm at his son’s home, Mr. Lauder watched as about three feet of water pooled around the house’s doors and windows.
He knew officials advised against swimming in a storm, given the risk of sudden water changes, contamination and other dangers, but he was willing to risk it to save his mother.
“So I knew the risks, but you don’t think about it at the time and I just went ahead,” he added in the Weather interview. “Your head is on a spinning rotor, you’re looking for debris, you’re looking for power lines…You just don’t think about it, you do it.”
Family members checked in by phone and he decided to take short videos of himself during the rescue to let them know he was okay.
As he tiptoed and swam across flooded Naples, Mr Lauder watched cars go by and spotted a wakeboard in the wreckage, which he used to paddle to his mother’s house.
There he found her panicked but alive. After wrapping her in a dry pair of sheets to prevent hypothermia and waiting for the waters to recede, he and one of his sons brought her and another elderly neighbor they met to safety. He reckons that if he had arrived 20 minutes later, his mother might have drowned.
The former officer says his experience taught him to heed official warnings to evacuate.
“I hope if anyone learns anything from this, it’s that there is still hope for humanity. But heed the warnings from Mother Nature… We had time to get away… to learn from the mistakes of others,” Mr Lauder said. “The next time there is an evacuation, we will leave.”
Mr. Lauder’s experience with his mother was, unfortunately, common. The poor and elderly are most vulnerable during natural disasters, and other Naples residents described similar rescues.
The town was near where Hurricane Ian first made landfall on the Florida mainland.
“(I) even had a rescue mission to pull an elderly disabled man out of his window, otherwise I feel like he would have died,” artist Nick Rapp, who lives near the water. he said to Naples Daily News on Wednesday.
“If I didn’t tie my emergency oar… if I never went to help people and make sure they were safe to pass, welcome them to our place… and learn about this man trapped in his place … who knows what his fate would be,” he added.
Another resident, Lacey Swander, told the newspaper she would not be returning to Florida.
“We’re leaving,” the 24-year-old said. “Seeing everything gone, it’s not okay. I can’t see it anymore.”
It’s been a week since the massive hurricane hit the US. At least 109 deaths have been confirmed, with nearly half of the victims in Lee County, Florida, where Ft Myers Beach is located, just north of Naples. About 400,000 remain without power.
“When you walk around the ruins, it’s an eye-opening scene,” said Fort Myers Beach Councilman Bill Veach. he told CNN on Tuesday. “You see a friend you weren’t sure was alive or dead and that brings you joy. A joy that is far greater than the loss of property.’
According to the Florida government, there have been more than 2,300 rescues of trapped residents statewide by more than 1,000 search and rescue personnel, who have conducted checks on approximately 79,000 structures.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited the Gulf Coast on Wednesday with Florida Governor Ron DeSandis.
Touring Ft Myer, the president said the hurricane, as well as wildfires in the West and drought on the Colorado River underlined the urgency of the climate crisis.
“There’s a lot going on, and I think the only thing that’s over is the debate about whether or not climate change exists and we have to do something about it,” Biden said.