Florida is a place founded on hype and hubris, half in the Global South, half in the Deep South, as diverse as California but politically more kin to Alabama or Georgia than you might think, full of people from anywhere prepared to swallow anything — especially if it’s unlikely. In 1994, the Virgin Mary appeared in Fort Lauderdale on a grilled cheese sandwich. Three springs in three towns claim to be the Fountain of Youth. There’s a street in Lake Wales where things roll uphill. The nice doctor in West Palm Beach promises he can sculpt your aging carcass into a simulacrum of a 25-year-old. And there’s always a piece of swampland going cheap: You could build a theme park or a strip mall or a gated community, name it after whatever bits of the ecosystem you killed when you clearcut it, and make your fortune.
Reality rolls off Florida like water off a manatee. Remember, our most famous resident is a large talking mouse. We embrace fantasy. Perhaps it’s a survival mechanism, some Darwinian adaptation that allows us to keep living on this brittle spit of damp limestone bracketed by rising seas and slapped by high winds. No matter how often they happen, we dismiss Florida’s meteorological tantrums, just as we shrug at the myriad ways Florida seems to be trying to kill us: the pit vipers, the fire ants, the coral snakes, the alligators, the bears, the sinkholes, the rip currents, the golf course lightning strikes, the toxic algae in the rivers, the Zika virus, the floods, the tornadoes — and the hurricanes. Especially the hurricanes.
My family arrived in Florida in 1799. They’ve made it through a lot of hurricanes, to say nothing of three Seminole Wars, yellow fever, the Civil War, the collapse of the cotton market, the influenza epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the property boom of the 1950s, the streaking craze of 1974, the pastel menace of the 1980s, and the 2000 presidential vote recount imbroglio.
We didn’t evacuate for Irma this month or for any of the other storms. During Hurricane Kate in 1985, our house in northern Leon County was without power for 10 days, but we had a chain saw, charcoal and a ton of dry cat food. Of course, we are as susceptible to Florida fabulism as everyone else: My first Florida ancestor was an on-the-make Frenchman named François Brouard who acquired a lot of land in Spanish East Florida. Once it became clear that Andrew Jackson and the Americans were going to harass, annex, invade or otherwise take Florida (Jackson and the plantation owners who ran Washington didn’t like the way the Spanish and the Seminoles encouraged slaves to run off from Georgia and South Carolina to Florida and freedom), Brouard reinvented himself, anglicized his name to Broward and became a respectable gent. One of his descendants, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, smuggled guns to Cuba before becoming governor in 1905, at which point he decided Florida should drain the Everglades. He did not, thank God, succeed. If he had, the damage from Irma would be even worse: The Everglades, like all of Florida’s wetlands, filter pollution and help control stormwater.
Most Floridians don’t think much about marshes or mangrove swamps or where the water goes; most Floridians — nearly two-thirds — are from somewhere else. They may not have been here in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew chewed its way through the Upper Keys and southern Dade and Collier counties, dumping 14 inches of rain, ripping out 70,000 acres of trees in the Everglades, and destroying a private reptile facility, which busted a slew of Burmese pythons out of jail, freeing them to forge new, fast-breeding lives in the River of Grass. They may never have heard of Donna, Dora, Opal, Charley, Eloise, or the great hurricane of 1928, in which more than 2,500 people, most of them African-American farmworkers, died. The 145-mph wind “woke up old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed,” as Zora Neale Hurston described it in “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Soon “the sea was walking the Earth with a heavy heel.”
Incited by Irma, the sea certainly stomped all over Barbuda, St. Martin, the British Virgin Islands, and other parts of the Caribbean. Florida was lucky that Irma crashed into Cuba and weakened. Even so, 75 percent of Floridians lost power during the storm. Many still don’t have water or lights or air conditioning. People are not merely inconvenienced, they started dying — in the third-most-populous state in the most technologically advanced nation on Earth.
But there’s only so much you can do in a place with an ocean, a gulf, and thousands of lakes, springs and rivers. I wonder if Irma is the storm that will finally change us. Will it force us to remember? If not the epic floods in Miami and Jacksonville or the devastation in the Keys (where 25 percent of the homes have been destroyed), then the sheer discomfort of staying — sloshing around your ruined living room in Bonita Springs, looking at gators swimming down your street? Or the irritation of evacuating — crashing on the floor of some middle school gym or spending hours in frozen traffic on I-75 or I-95? Irma’s our first big social-media hurricane: We could all watch as palm trees bent to the ground, and three or four feet of Atlantic briny coursed down Brickell Avenue.
The truth is, once we return from our short exile, we’ll probably forget and go back to our self-destructive ways, rebuilding on ever-eroding barrier islands, draining and paving the wetlands that might protect us from climate change and hurricane harm.
The last we saw Irma, it was a rainy patch wafting around the upper Mississippi Valley like a disconsolate ghost. Here in Florida, I’m sensing a certain petulance taking hold. Even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the first responders, the various state agencies, and good old ordinary humans all seem to have done a fine job coping with the storm, and we all enjoyed the images of Florida heroism — the Busch Gardens flamingos marching single-file to safety, the intrepid boaters rescuing stranded pregnant ladies and old people, the Key West street roosters wrapped in newspaper, ready to be evacuated in the back seat of a car — perhaps it’s only natural to wonder why we can’t avoid this hassle altogether. It’s the 21st century! We have smart houses and self-driving cars and robots! It’s not reasonable that some alchemy of warm water, cool air and thunderclouds can just rear up and disrupt all human life for hundreds of miles. I mean, who’s the boss around here?
Short answer: not us. We aren’t the boss. We’ll never be the boss. The environment, however much we degrade it, rules. Where I live in North Florida, we have hills, which (though our many trees like to hurl themselves down on our power lines) keep us safe from the storm surges at the beaches. In South Florida, where the population is much larger and much denser — and much closer to the rising seas — the dikes, the canals and all those pumps give an illusion of control. But it’s only an illusion. Miami can flood on a calm, sunny day. And even the hills of Tallahassee cannot shield us from a rapidly changing climate. Yet most of Florida’s elected leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott, won’t even talk about climate change. What’s the big deal? We have flood insurance!
Florida sells itself as a dream, a low-tax, low-regulation, open-for-business paradise dangling like a pearl off the end of America. But look at your screen, look out your window: Geography is destiny. Nature always wins in the end.
Diane Roberts is the author of “Dream State,” a historical memoir of Florida, and “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America.” She teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee.