In one photo, Johnny Lauder’s 86-year-old mother is at her Florida home, submerged almost to her shoulders in black muddy water, looking straight at the camera, her mouth wide open.
In another, she lies right above the water line on a table wrapped in sheets to keep her warm. In another, she is being pushed through the water in a wheelchair, her rescue almost complete.
The photos were taken after Hurricane Ian made landfall last Wednesday, causing a powerful storm and gusts of 150 mph. They tell the story of Lauder’s journey to rescue his mother, Karen Lauder, from the house she refused to leave despite the family’s request.
He never thought that the pictures would go viral.
“There’s a lot more going on now and I don’t think I’m important, but I think they (the public) want to see that there’s a little humanity left,” he told the station.
He sent short videos and photos to his family, letting them know that he was fine.
“That’s how I inadvertently documented the whole ordeal,” he said.
Before the storm hit, Lauder said her mother — who lost a leg and needed a wheelchair — “kicked and screamed” and said she didn’t want to leave her home in Naples, Florida. “We didn’t evacuate because we can’t leave him behind,” he explained.
He didn’t anticipate Ian’s level of destruction. Speaking from his son’s home on Tuesday, Lauder said that during Hurricane Irma in 2017, his mother’s house was flooded about 6 inches deep, so he assumed a similar outcome with Ian.
Instead, Ian devastated Florida in one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the US and sent more than 3 feet (91 cm) of water around her home, leaving her trapped. He called his son for help.
“She said the water was up to her wheelchair and hitting her belly button,” Lauder said. He was taking shelter at his son’s house, half a mile (0.8 km) away from his mother.
Lauder, who said he has rescue diver training, stares out the window. He swam, walked, swam and kicked in the water for about 45 minutes to get to her house. He said a van and two cars passed by him to avoid the electric poles.
Lauder said he heard his mother screaming as he approached.
“It was a feeling of terror and relief at the same time,” he said. “The panic was that I didn’t know if something was falling on her or if she got stuck and hurt. But the relief was knowing that there was still air in her lungs.”
He made it sit on a table and tied it in dry sheets from a high shelf. He was concerned about the wounds around his body—open wounds that were dangerously susceptible to infection in the bacteria-laden floodwaters.
He waited three hours for the water to recede, so that he could push her into the streets in a wheelchair. When the water was two feet high, he called his 20-year-old son to join him and help his grandmother get out safely.
Around 1 a.m. – about 11 hours after Lauder’s mother called her for help – Lauder returned to her older son’s home with her mother and younger son.
Lauder said her mother was later taken to the hospital, as she had some infection. “But she was treated, and she is warm. She is on a soft comfy bed. She is fine,” he said.
Lauder’s sister-in-law Cassandra Clark in Miami started a GoFundMe to raise money for Lauder, her mother, and her sons.
“While we are very grateful that our family is physically fine, they have lost absolutely everything in this storm and, unfortunately, none of the renters were insured,” Clark wrote.
The page has raised over $17,000 as of Tuesday.
“I am amazed that all these people are helping me and they don’t even know me,” Lauder said.
He hopes that people will now know where to evacuate. “My mom has changed her tone: She’ll be out next time,” he said. “I hope people learn from the mistakes of others and not their own.”
As of late Tuesday, CBS News had confirmed that the storm had killed at least 108 people – 104 in Florida and 4 others in North Carolina.