Boats on the roofs; cars at sea; coastal cities under water. Naples beach sand now smothers the streets of Naples. Hurricane Ian’s 150mph winds ripped homes off their foundations in Fort Myers, a pretty town once known for its avenues of royal palm trees. At least 50 people are believed to have died in Florida. In some of our brightest, wealthiest and most densely populated communities, survivors are now sifting through the ruins of their slice of paradise.
To the north in Tallahassee, where I live, we were just beyond Ian’s western reach, but a few days ago it looked like the storm was headed straight for us. Like almost everyone in Florida, we prepared for it: filling our gas tanks, anchoring our patio furniture, scouring the grocery store buying batteries, toilet paper, cans of tuna, bags of ice, beer packs. The city teams are getting ready. Florida State and Florida A&M universities have scaled back, canceling classes.
We knew it could have been us. Four years ago this month it was us. Category 5 Hurricane Michael roared into Mexico Beach, drowning the coast with a 20-foot wave, washing away a section of US 98, devastating land as far as Georgia. A pecan tree fell on my mother’s house; an old cedar narrowly missed mine.
I’m from Florida, an increasingly rare species in a state where most people come from elsewhere. My family goes back eight generations to a farm boy who fought for the settlers in the Revolutionary War and then left his newly freed country for Spanish East Florida. King Charles IV ceded vast tracts of land – already, proto-Floridians loved real estate bargains. I grew up in the capital of Florida, 25 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, a kind of anti-Miami – luxuriously empty, with hills of red clay and forests full of oaks, magnolias and pines – and on what is now called the Forgotten Coast, long stretches of beach without condominium towers or resorts or pastel mansions.
Before the climate started to warm up so abruptly, this part of Florida would get quite cold in the winter. Not Wisconsin cold, but some years it has snowed. Horrified northerners stopping for the night en route to a new life were eager to hit the road again to the tropical Eden promised by their estate agents. In recent years, nearly 1,000 people have moved to Florida every day, lured by relatively cheap properties, the lack of state income tax and (for some) Florida’s belligerent politics. . Governor Ron DeSantis has made a national name for himself — possibly serving a 2024 presidential race — by attacking federal COVID policy, exposing ‘critical race theory’ and sending asylum seekers Venezuelans at Martha’s Vineyard, all in the name of owning the libs. But many newcomers are lured simply by the fantasy of endless summer and never having to shovel snow again.
Florida’s population has been exploding for decades. In 1960, not quite 5 million people lived here. Today there are nearly 22 million, most wanting to settle as close to the water as they can afford. The Florida dream is that when you look out of your condo balcony, you see the Gulf or the Atlantic, or a lake surrounded by cypress trees. Deadly hurricanes do not figure in these visions of sea and sun. The problem is that this torrent of people endangers what they come for: sandy beaches, boating, fishing and charismatic wildlife (panthers, manatees and bottlenose dolphins).
In Florida’s beauty lies Florida’s downfall. For more and more people to live here, we have to destroy more and more land. Once-abundant marshes and swamps have filtered surface waters and slowed flooding, but Florida has destroyed nearly half of its wetlands since 1845: we’ve drained them, paved over them, and built on them. Mangroves stabilize coastlines, provide habitat for all kinds of animals, and dampen storm surges. Yet developers, sometimes encouraged by the state Department of Environmental Protection, tear them up and erect ineffective dikes.
There are about 3 million more people in Florida than there were in 2010, a population surge that is depleting the Biscayne and Florida aquifers – the sources of drinking water for 90% of us here. – faster than they can replenish. We pump too much of the ground, allowing salt water to seep in. Our rivers and lakes are choking under mats of harmful blue-green algae, produced by runoff from excessive construction, agriculture, and all that Miracle-Gro we dump on our lawns. and golf courses. It is toxic to humans and also kills fish. And that hurts property values. Nobody wants to buy a house on the inland waterway or on a river covered in silt and smelling like rotting meat, with dead manatees floating by the dock.
Yet for Northerners and Midwesterners and all others who flock to Florida like so many Piping Plovers, Florida remains a modern day Arcadia (there is, of course, a city in Florida called Arcadia). If you are over 55 and want to settle in a place that feels somehow free from the usual pressures and responsibilities of society, you can buy a house in the Villages, a 98% development 33,000 acre white with sports “downtowns”. “historic” buildings and markers commemorating events that never happened. Or maybe shop at Latitude Margaritaville, which promises endless pickleball, tiki huts, and maybe even a visit from Jimmy Buffett himself. If you’re seriously wealthy, Palm Beach or Sarasota or Indian Creek Island, where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have a home, will insulate you from the uncomfortable inequalities of contemporary America.
At least that’s the fantasy – the state’s most famous resident is, after all, a talking mouse. Florida has been in the fantasy business since the 1770s, when botanist William Bartram explored St. Johns Country and described Florida’s cold, clear springs as “otherworldly blue ether.” . At the end of the 19th century, the industrialist Henry Flagler launched a luxury tourism activity by building hotels resembling the palaces of the Alhambra or the Villa d’Este.
Despite the best efforts of the entrepreneurs at Disneyfication, Florida is a real place, with real people. Our natural ecosystem can withstand wind and flooding, but our built environment cannot. At some point, everyone — the chambers of commerce, the construction lobby, big agriculture, Floridians old and new — will have to recognize that our state is in grave peril. The sea rises an inch every three years. It rains more, floods more, and stays warmer longer, keeping the water warm, fueling bigger, more violent storms.
Hurricane Ian is set to end climate denial. But it won’t, even though thousands of people will lose their homes and businesses and cost insurers tens of billions of dollars. Only about 20% of residents on Ian Road have flood coverage. Some insurers will no longer write policies in Florida. Why take a chance on waterfront property in a state known for its devastating hurricanes? The governor called the legislature into special session last May, but measures passed to help Floridians get affordable policies have yet to be implemented. Many of Ian’s victims will have to rely on FEMA and the kindness of strangers.
Few of Florida’s elected leaders want to talk about climate change, let alone do anything about it. Senator Marco Rubio admits climate is changing but says maybe it’s not caused by human activity, maybe we need to study it more, maybe let the private sector deal with it . Senator Rick Scott declined to utter the sentence climate change for the eight years he was governor (except to question it), and he made it clear that no state employee should either. Despite issues like sunny Miami flooding or saltwater incursions that forced the city of Hallandale Beach to shut down six of its eight municipal wells, he would ignore questions about climate change with “I’m not a scientist”.
When Ron DeSantis was elected governor in 2018, he initially seemed to take the climate crisis seriously. He appointed a “resilience leader” and created a task force to tackle toxic algae. But it soon became clear that DeSantis sees climate change as primarily a political rather than an environmental issue. He has made restoring the Everglades a priority, perhaps inspired by polls showing it’s also a priority for most Floridians, but he refuses to address the causes of climate change, which he calls a “left stuff”. In June, he banned state investments in companies that use sustainability ratings. I struggle to see how waging a culture war helps us survive the next monster storm.
Florida’s recovery after Ian will be slow. The damage will take months or even years to repair. Some people still have blue tarps on their roofs after Hurricane Michael nearly four years ago. I can look out the window and see the lower half of a pine tree that snapped like a pencil in high winds four years ago. But the horror will eventually fade in the mind, as fear of the pandemic has receded. People will always come to Florida to live on the coast. They assume they will be the lucky ones.
Ron DeSantis likes to call Florida “the freest state in America.” Here we are free to refuse life-saving vaccines, just as we are free to insist that climate change is wrong and to think that we can continue to build on the beautiful coasts, next to the beautiful sea, even as the beautiful sand fades beneath our feet and the tide rises faster than we can outrun it.