A Florida man, who is a former North Chicago police officer, traveled a half-mile through flooded waters during Hurricane Ian to save his wheelchair-bound 84-year-old mother, who was trapped inside her home.
Johnny Lauder, 49, lives in Naples, Florida, which is located off the Gulf Coast.
Lauder was a police officer and SWAT officer for the North Chicago Police Department in the 1990s until he moved to Florida in 2000.
Lauder’s oldest son, 26, and 84-year-old mother, Karen, live in the same neighborhood.
Lauder lives four blocks away from his son and Karen lives another four blocks, or a half-mile, away.
“She said she was not going to evacuate and she would fight me, kicking and screaming, even though she was in a wheelchair and only has one leg,” Lauder told Lake and McHenry County Scanner in a phone interview.
Lauder said he and his family would not evacuate without his mother, and they stayed at Lauder’s oldest son’s home as Ian was approaching.
“I knew we were going to get storm surge,” Lauder said. His family started to prepare.
Karen called Lauder’s youngest son, 20, and said that water was rising to her ankle and then to the bottom of her wheelchair.
“When it got to her navel and the water got higher on the sliding glass door, that’s when I knew it was go time,” Lauder said.
Lauder sprang into action and gathered his family and pets in the attic.
He jumped out of a window and started to make his way to his mother’s house.
Lauder fought the water current and kept swimming while vehicles and debris were floating past him.
“Some areas I could stand, like maybe waist or just over my belly button. Other areas it was at my chest,” he said.
Lauder turned a corner and had a straight path to his mother’s house, which was around a half-mile away.
He took a life jacket and a cushion from a nearby boat that was connected to a trailer.
During the daring trek, Lauder periodically stopped to catch his breath and send photos of his surroundings to his family so they would know where he was.
“Halfway through the journey, I stopped because all the telephone poles, all the bells on top, were arching. It was pretty surreal,” he said.
“I was feeling if I felt any buzzing or tickling in the water and I knew what to look out for. I knew I could be hit by debris at any time and I could be swept under by the current, which was strong.”
Lauder said it felt like the Earth was moving.
“At that time, I took a picture to show them where I was at. And I kid you not, I looked up at the pole and when I looked back down in front of me, there was this kneeboard. I’m not questioning where it came from, I just accepted the gift,” he said.
He used the kneeboard to paddle and was able to cut through the water “a hundred times easier.”
Lauder kept his head on a swivel and checked floating cars in case there was anyone in them.
He eventually reached the yard of his mother’s home where he was able to catch his breath.
“As I approached the door I could hear her screaming and it was an overwhelming sense of terror and joy at the same time,” Lauder said.
Lauder entered his mother’s house through a back window and found her with water up to her chin.
“I’ve never seen her happier to see me in my life,” he said. “If I had been 30 minutes later she wouldn’t be with us today.”
Lauder’s mother has a skin condition where most of her body’s skin was compromised, Lauder said.
His mother was shivering and Lauder was concerned about hypothermia and bacterial infections, so he warmed her up and put her on top of a table so she could dry off.
“I knew then we had to wait it out. The water was already up to the windows, the refrigerator was floating next to us.”
The two waited for three hours until the water started to recede.
Lauder’s youngest son came to the house and helped evacuate Karen and her elderly neighbor.
Lauder helped carry the neighbor’s belongings while the group made their way to a dry hotel, which was further than the initial half-mile journey.
“That trek took us about an hour and 15 minutes,” he said.
The hotel had no rooms available, so the group went back to Lauder’s oldest son’s house at night with flashlights.
“My son’s house, where I initiated the trip from, they were fortunate. They only got maybe a foot of water inside the house.”
Lauder called the aftermath of the storm surge “disgusting” and “gut-wrenching.”
Paramedics later transported Karen to the hospital where she was treated for infections.
Lauder said his home and his mother’s home were completely destroyed.
Lauder’s sister-in-law, Cassandra Clark, who lives in Miami, created a GoFundMe account for Lauder’s family.
Lauder’s mother is continuing to recover at the hospital, an update on Wednesday said.
More than 500 donations accumulated over $25,000 as of Thursday evening.
Lauder said he gets emotional from all the support.
“When I start thinking about it, it blows me away that all these people who don’t even know us are helping,” Lauder said. “I’m blown away and humble at the same time.”
The man continues to stay positive and hopeful for the future.
“I lost my house, I lost my possessions, but I didn’t lose my mom, I didn’t lose my job and I haven’t lost hope,” he said.
“Life’s like a computer and there’s two buttons – there’s your reset and your power – and thank God it was just my reset button that was hit.”
Lauder’s community miraculously still had power after the storm, so his two sons went house-to-house and helped restore air conditioning and electricity.
“That’s my boys. They don’t think of themselves, they put everybody before themselves. I couldn’t be more proud,” he said.
Lauder said his past experience in policing helped him stay committed and focused during the daring rescue.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat. I would do it for your mom, I would do it for anyone’s mom.”
Lauder said his mother has learned to evacuate if another storm hits in the future.
He hopes his story will drive home the importance of evacuating in the event of a dangerous storm.
“I’d rather see people evacuate and come back and cry over their possessions that they lost than have a loved one cry over a person that they loved that they lost,” he said.