Whenever flooding inundates a community, forecasters advise their viewers not to swim through them because of the myriad dangers potentially lurking beneath the surface – but Joni Loder ignored those warnings after Hurricane Jana storm surge trapped his mother, twice disabled, in her home in Florida.
Lauder swam the half-mile-deep, fast-moving, debris-filled floodwaters that flooded his 84-year-old mother’s Naples neighborhood to pull her from the home she couldn’t escape before Ian.
While their family lost that home, another home, and their cars to the powerful Category 4 hurricane, Loder’s actions allowed him and the rest of their loved ones to make plans to rebuild their lives together instead of arranging a funeral for their mother, Karen Loder .
The Loder family’s ordeal partly illustrates the dilemma that people who find themselves in the crosshairs of a terrible storm face forever: whether to survive it or get out of its path, which for some is prohibitively expensive or extremely difficult because medical conditions as well as other factors.
With everyone he loves now physically safe after Ian, Loder is asking anyone who has the ability to evacuate but doesn’t want to — even if he’s told to — to reconsider.
“Please heed the warnings,” Loder, 49, said Washington Post. “I would save my mother one more time, but it’s definitely better not to linger.”
Forecasters initially thought the worst of John would be more than 160 miles north of Naples, in and around Tampa. But Ian ultimately made landfall on Florida’s west coast on Sept. 28 further south than once expected with winds of 150 mph, subjecting Naples to a severe storm surge, or the upwelling of seawater displaced ahead of a storm.
As Johnny Loder — a former Chicago police officer and rescue diver — tells it, his mother didn’t want to evacuate in part because she hated losing her privacy. Karen Loder, who uses a wheelchair, decided to keep Ian at her house while Johnny took refuge at his son’s house a few blocks away.
Ian’s surge flooded homes in Naples and downed power lines, creating a treacherous swamp where streets and sidewalks should be. Water poured into the house where Johnny Loder had taken refuge with his two sons and one of his boy’s girlfriends, as well as their pets, and the group took shelter in the attic.
Then Karen Loder called in a panic and told him the water was up to her chest.
Johnny Loder told the Post that he jumped out the window and began wading through the water, navigating downed power lines, cars and household items that Ian was washed away by the surge.
One such item was a knee board that Lauder used to stay afloat.
“It was like an act of God when the kneeboard just floated in front of me,” Loder said, according to the Post. “There was nothing outside, and it just came out, like, ‘Wow, okay, somebody’s looking for me.'”
Lauder walked half a mile of these conditions before finally reaching his mother, who was suffering from hypothermia from the cold flood. He wrapped her in dry sheets, stacked tables on top of each other to give her a dry place to rest, and waited with her for the water to recede.
Then one of Lauder’s sons arrived and helped pull his grandmother out of the house. They started to walk back to the house Johnny Loder had come from, but then realized that one of Karen’s neighbors needed help getting out of the flooded area as night fell.
Lauder’s son pushed his grandmother’s wheelchair through the water, which was now below his waist, to the house where the rest of his group was. Lauder returned to them later, took the neighbor to the hotel.
Everyone was safe.
There are almost certainly many dramatic rescue stories after John. U.S. Coast Guard officials said they had rescued more than 400 people from the high water that Ian churned up in Florida and neighboring South Carolina.
Some, however, did not survive.
As of Monday afternoon, officials said they had confirmed the deaths of more than 80 people in Florida as a result of Ian, and they worried that the grim toll would rise as the search for debris left by the storm continued.
Ian did not spare the Lauders themselves either. They didn’t have renter’s insurance on their stuff and asked people to consider donating online GoFundMe campaign to help them rebuild their lives.
Still, Lauder said he’s grateful that what was lost can be replaced. And he said he wouldn’t change a thing about what happened after the decision to expel Ian became irreversible.
“If I had waited, she wouldn’t be here,” Loder told the Post about embarking on the mission to rescue his mother. “And this is my mother. I would do this for any mom or anyone else in that situation. You know, that’s what you should do.”