Johnny Lauder Johnny Lauder and his mother
Before Hurricane Ian pounded Florida, Johnny Lauder couldn't convince his mother to leave her home and go to a shelter.
"She said, 'You'd have to pull me out kicking and screaming,'" Lauder tells PEOPLE.
But when his 84-year-old wheelchair bound mother, Karen Lauder, called to say the water had reached her belly button, he dove out the window and started swimming to save her.
"It's my mom. I love my mom to death," he says.
Lauder, 49, is a delivery truck driver in Naples, but in the '90s he was a Chicago police officer and rescue diver. He, his sons, and his mother all live about four blocks apart.
His wife and mother-in-law were visiting family in Vegas while Lauder decided to weather the storm at his son's house. All the while, his youngest stayed in constant contact with his grandmother.
Once she called and said the water was up to her stomach, Lauder put his sons, his son's girlfriend, a rabbit, a bird, and and a cat into the attic crawl space with food and essentials — as well as "a way to chop through the roof if things got really bad" — and he set off around 3 p.m. to save his mother.
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"I jumped out the window," says Lauder, who had to push and kick his way through the water. "Cars were floating past me. The current was insane."
"I knew the risk, I knew the dangers — I could be hit by debris, I could be taken under, slammed against something, but there's no time to think you just do," he adds. Along the way, he passed a boat. Although it was tied up and locked, he did find a life jacket he could grab. "Figured when I get to my mom, I'd put it on her," he says.
As he made his way to his mom's house, which was about a half-mile away, he was moving against the current. "That was the hardest part," he says. "Every so often when I was able to stop kicking and pushing through, I grabbed onto a branch or next to a pole to take a selfie because my phone was going off the hook. My wife, the family in Miami, and my kids in the attic, everybody wanted to know if I was okay."
"My hands were wet, so I couldn't text," he says. All he could do was "pull my iPhone out of my shoulder pocket, snap a picture, hit send to everybody, and then put it back and continue on."
Johnny Lauder Johnny Lauder
The streets were so flooded that in his selfies "it looks like I'm in a lake," he says. When a kneeboard floated by, he grabbed it and used it to kick through the water.
In all the photos he took, a caterpillar was on his head.
"I saved the caterpillar too, so maybe he was my guardian angel," he says.
It took him about 40 minutes to travel the four blocks to his mother's home, but it felt like forever, he says.
"I knew she didn't have much time," he says. "I made it to her door. I heard her screaming."
When he got a window to open, he saw his mother with water "up to her chin," he says.
Johnny Lauder Johnny Lauder arrives to rescue his mom
"If it would've been 20 minutes later, she wouldn't be here," he shares, adding, "She's never been happier to see me."
His mom was "shivering like a chihuahua," and he feared hypothermia was setting in. He went upstairs and found some dry sheets – and he recalls her immediate reaction was to tell him, "'No, not those, those are my good sheets!'"
Still, he wrapped them around her, lifted his mother onto a high table, gave her some food and warmed her up. "We just rode it out," he says. About three hours later, the water started to go down and one of his sons "came to the rescue," opening the front door so Lauder could get his mother's wheelchair out.
The water was still about up to his mother's chest when he pushed her through the door. Then, Lauder saw another older, arthritic woman nearby, holding all her belongings in a trash bag. So he carried that woman as he pushed his mother's wheelchair. "I wasn't going to leave her behind," he says.
Johnny Lauder Johnny Lauder and his mother
They made it to a hotel about a half mile away that he knew was dry. There Lauder asked hotel staff to contact the other woman's family and tell them she was okay. The hotel said there were no rooms available and insisted Lauder and his mother leave.
"I had to push her back to my son's house and through chest deep water at night with flashlights and it was pretty bad," he says. "We get home, and we're at my son's house, who luckily only got about a foot of water in the house."
His mother is now at a hospital receiving treatment for infections from the murky water.
"Her house is completely gone," Lauder says. "All possessions. My house is completely gone. All my house was under five feet of water."
But, he has what's most important, he says.
"I might have lost my home, my things, but I didn't lose family, I didn't lose my job. I didn't lose hope. So we're still here," he says. "Life is like a computer, there's two buttons: There's a reset and a power — and thank God it was just a reset button that got hit and not the power."
His family has set up a GoFundMe to help them rebuild. "There's so many people out there that have it worse than us," he says. "We're okay. People lost their lives. We're happy, we're together, we'll make it — we just can't give up."