When the flood engulfed the home of Robert Podgorski and Jennifer Carbajal, the two swam to the safety of a neighbor’s second-floor balcony with their dogs over their heads. At the same time, their small and beloved business in Fort Myers, the Green Cup Cafe, was destroyed.

In less than 24 hours, Hurricane Jan completely turned the couple’s life around.

Podhorski and Carbajal were living with two roommates when Jan struck. The Category 4 storm caused a nearby river to overflow its banks, and it didn’t take long for floodwaters to seep into the home, which sits on a 3-foot-tall concrete block.

“Before it got through the door, it started coming through the walls and under our floors because we have an old house. The house literally looks like water is coming out of the walls, like in a horror movie,” he told CBS News.

When the flood overturned the refrigerator, they decided it was time to leave. But at that moment the door did not open. They had to push him out and swim to a neighbor’s second floor balcony across the street to safety. And although they – and their dogs – escaped the flood, there was still considerable danger.

The water was filled with gasoline from all the damaged cars and boats, causing carbon monoxide to be released in the house next door. Carbon monoxide fumes, which are odorless and colorless, can quickly become deadly during storms. Podgorsky felt dizzy, and another person in the house had to stand outside during the storm to be able to breathe.

“We had to open all the doors and windows because of the 100 mph winds,” he said.

“It was probably the scariest moment of my life, thinking we’re not done yet,” he added. “…I can’t even begin to think about what it was like to be in Fort Myers Beach or Sanibel.”

All they could do was focus on the outdoors and think about their business, which they had only been doing for two years.

Inside the Green Cup Cafe in downtown Fort Myers after Hurricane Jan.

Robert Podhorsky

“One can simply say the force of nature”

Podhorski and his girlfriend Carbajal, once regulars at Green Cup Cafe, used their savings to take over the downtown restaurant in 2020. Their dream was to have a “cute little place to bring people in to eat delicious things,” Podhorski said. And so it was – the cafe has hundreds of laudatory reviews on Google. The words ‘exceptional’, ‘beautiful’, ‘friendly’ and ‘accommodating’ have been used to describe the small organic and vegan eatery known for its vibrant cocktails, coffee, sandwiches and snacks.

But then the water, which was once hundreds of meters away from the restaurant, got into its walls. Based on the damage, Podgorski estimates there was about 5 feet of churning water inside — he’s 6 feet tall, and says the water was up to his chest.

When he and Carbajal first saw Jan’s business post, all he could say when they opened the door was “Jesus.” It was a feeling, he said, of shock – he was nervous, scared and didn’t know where to even begin.

“You can say that the force of nature, the power of the waves, the undulations simply threw around such things as rag dolls, paper, twigs,” he said. “…Anything that could be wet, that could survive, was now full of mud, so it couldn’t survive then.”

Like many nearby businesses, Podgorski said Green Cup Cafe doesn’t have one flood insurance.

“Insurance costs are skyrocketing. It’s pretty much unaffordable,” he said. “…It’s like thousands of dollars a month, and if you’re a small business coming out of COVID, it’s already hard to survive. I made $12 an hour for two years… Everyone thinks we live in luxury in the world and we have very little money.”

Now that he and Carbajal are staying in the guest room of one of the restaurant’s patrons, all Podgorski can do is focus on recovering and keeping his employees on the payroll, which will cost up to $20,000 a month. That doesn’t include the thousands it will cost to renovate the cafe, which needs redone walls, new electrical and plumbing, and thousands of dollars worth of new equipment. The couple started a GoFundMe to cover the costs.

“Luck” in the midst of devastation

A lifelong Florida resident, Podgorski has spent years among those who joke and throw hurricane parties when lower-category storms hit the state. Now it’s finished.

Anyone who says Hurricane Ian hasn’t changed their thinking about hurricane season, he said, is “lying.”

“I had power until I had 8 feet of water. And we even joked, ‘What a weak** hurricane,’ and then the next thing you know, I lost my whole life,” he said. “…How are we so unaware of this power and how are we so laissez-faire? … I couldn’t even philosophize about something like that because it was just unfathomable.”

Losing a home and a business is scarring, but Podhorski also knows people who are among the more than 100 died in a stormincluding a bartender acquaintance and a friend’s mother.

Officials continue to examine the condition – even President Biden was in Fort Myers on Wednesday — but Podgorski says he hopes they continue to focus on the millions of people affected by the storm after emergency relief ends.

“Awareness and focus,” he said. “Make sure it’s not forgotten in a week. This is something that has literally changed our geography… I’m afraid everyone is just bailing out. It’s going to take months, if not years, for some communities to rebuild.”

Even if it takes years, and even if he essentially has to rebuild his life from scratch, he says the community will be okay because everyone in it has each other. At his small business alone, he said, 45 people came to help him clean up, turning parts of the cleanup process that should have taken days into hours.

“If they keep up the pace we’ve had this week, we’ll bounce back quickly,” he said of downtown Fort Myers.

And despite everything, Podgorski says that he feels “the luckiest”.

“We have to save our lives. Our neighbors survived,” he said. “We’re getting a chance to rebuild.”

Luis Giraldo contributed to this report.