As floodwaters swallowed Robert Podgorski and Jennifer Carbajal’s home, the two swam to the safety of a neighbor’s second-story balcony with their dogs above their heads. At the same time, their small and well-loved Fort Myers business, the Green Cup Cafe, was being decimated. 

In less than 24 hours, Hurricane Ian turned the couple’s lives completely upside down. 

Podgorski and Carbajal were living with two roommates when Ian hit. The Category 4 storm caused a nearby river to overflow, and it didn’t take long for floodwaters to start seeping into the house, which sits on a 3-foot-tall concrete block. 

“Before it came through the door, it started coming through the walls and underneath our floors because we have an old house. The house is literally just like leaking water from the walls like a horror movie,” he told CBS News. 

When the flooding knocked over the refrigerator, they decided it was time to leave. But at that point, the door wouldn’t open. They had to push it out and swim to their neighbor’s second-story balcony across the street for safety. And while they – and their dogs – had escaped the floodwaters, there was still significant danger. 

The water was filled with gasoline from all the cars and boats it had damaged, unleashing carbon monoxide within the neighbor’s house. Carbon monoxide fumes, which are odorless and colorless, can quickly become deadly during storms. Podgorski became lightheaded 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 with 100 mile-an-hour winds ripping through,” he said. “…That was probably the scariest moment in my life, thinking that we’re not done yet,” he said. “…I can’t even think about what it was like to be in Fort Myers Beach or Sanibel.” 

All they could do was focus on getting fresh air and think about their business, which they’d only had for two years. 

The inside of Green Cup Cafe in downtown Fort Myers after Hurricane Ian. 

Robert Podgorski

“You could just tell the force of nature” 

Podgorski and his girlfriend Carbajal, once regulars of Green Cup Cafe, used their savings to take over the restaurant in the city’s downtown in 2020. It was their dream to have “a cute little spot to bring people in to eat nice things,” Podgorski said. And it was – the cafe has hundreds of rave reviews on Google. “Exceptional,” “beautiful,” “friendly,” and “welcoming” have all been used to describe the small organic and vegan-friendly eatery, known for its brightly-colored smoothies, coffees, sandwiches and snacks.

But then, water that was once hundreds of yards away from the restaurant found its way into its walls. Based on the damage, Podgorski believes there was roughly 5 feet of raging water inside – he’s 6 feet tall, and says the water got to about the height of his chest. 

When he and Carbajal first saw the business post-Ian, 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 could just tell the force of nature, the power of the waves, the undulation just tossed things around like rag dolls and paper, twigs,” he said. “…Anything that might have been wet that could have survived, was now full of mud, so then it couldn’t survive.” 

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

“Costs for insurance are through the roof. It’s pretty much unaffordable,” he said. “…It’s like thousands of dollars a month and when you’re a small business coming out of COVID, it’s already hard to be alive. I was making $12 an hour for two years. … Everyone thinks we live a luxurious world and our money is real tight.” 

Now, as he and Carbajal stay in the guest room of one of their restaurant patrons, all Podgorski can do is focus on rebuilding and keeping his employees paid, a feat that will cost up to $20,000 a month. That doesn’t include the thousands it will cost to redo the cafe, which needs its walls rebuilt, new electric and plumbing and thousands of dollars worth of new equipment. The couple launched a GoFundMe to help cover the costs. 

“Luck” amid the devastation

As a lifelong Floridian, Podgorski spent years among those who joke about and throw hurricane parties when lower-category storms hit the state. Now, that’s over. 

Anyone who says that Hurricane Ian didn’t change their mindset around hurricane season, he said, “is lying.” 

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

The loss of their home and business is scarring, but Podgorski also knows people who are among the more than 100 who died in the storm, including a bartender he knew and a friend’s mother. 

Officials are continuing to survey the state – even President Biden was in Fort Myers on Wednesday – but Podgorski says he hopes they continue to pay attention to the millions impacted by the storm after the immediacy ends.

“Awareness and focus,” he said. “Make sure that after a week that this doesn’t get forgotten. This is something that literally changed our geography…I’m afraid everyone just bails out. It’s gonna be months if not years for certain communities to be rebuilt.” 

Even if it does take years, and even though he is essentially having to rebuild his life from the ground up, he says the community will be OK, because everyone within it has each other. Just at his small business, he said 45 people have shown up to help him clean, turning some parts of the cleanup process that should have taken days into hours. 

“If they keep the same stride that we’re having this week, we’re going to be back up in no time,” he said of downtown Fort Myers.

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

“We got to save our lives. Our neighbors survived,” he said. “We get the opportunity to rebuild.”