Why do Florid­i­ans keep telling our­selves we can beat na­ture?

Fan­tasy eclipses re­al­ity in the Sun­shine State, even af­ter Irma, writes Diane Roberts

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @BadDebu­tante 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.

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’s. 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 re­count.

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 145mph 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 have 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 brine 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 sin­gle­file 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 self­driv­ing 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.

We aren’t the boss. We’ll never be the boss. The en­vi­ron­ment, how­ever much we de­grade it, rules.

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