Is Florida Becoming a Failed State?

Is Florida Becoming a Failed State?

Large parts of Florida should be mangrove thickets, prickly swampland, and unforgiving marshy wilderness—for our own survival.


Florida will try to kill you. This is the Florida Rule, and it governs one of the most capricious landscapes on earth. Misunderstand the environment at your peril, as we were reminded by Hurricane Ian this past month. Parts of our unique paradise lie in ruin, and we will spend months, if not years, trying to process the experience. While Hurricane Ian has left Florida, it remains behind in the flooding and in our governor’s political maneuverings. It persists in the minds of survivors and in the material effects on their lives. Left behind, too, as porous as the sand the storm surge deposited miles inland, are questions about policy, storytelling, and the future of the state.

The storm came ashore at the barrier island of Cayo Costa, directly west of Fort Myers. The eye of the hurricane, viewed in Landsat images, looked perversely rich, like the azure jewel of a hidden tropical kingdom, protected by encircling silver clouds. In the aftermath, the plumes of runoff discharged into the sea had a disquieting resemblance to an oil slick. The shoreline that had entertained such a crushing blow now bled toxins and sediment into the churned-up ocean. A third wave, of dead marine life, will likely wash up on beaches in the weeks to come.

Ian devolved into a tropical storm as it traipsed across the peninsula, then gathered strength again while out at sea along the Atlantic Coast, only to curve back and strike South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane. Throughout the Florida counties where floodwaters consumed entire cities, emergency crews broke into submerged cars to reach people inside, while the Coast Guard rescued others from rooftops. People kayaked down their main streets and swam in floodwaters through the downstairs of their houses. The majority of those homes were not covered by flood insurance, and in several places the flooding has not yet subsided.

In the area around Fort Myers, breaking the Florida Rule came with a heavy cost. People living on remote barrier islands—ribbons of ever-changing sand that lie parallel to the coast—were reminded of their tenuous connection to the mainland with the collapse of the Sanibel Causeway. Just eight months ago, residents were concerned about new pavilions, picnic areas, and parking on the causeway that might interfere with windsurfing activities. A year earlier, commissioners approved a 50-condo development next to the causeway. Now, the causeway lies broken in five places, cutting off access to emergency services and essential supplies.

Large parts of this state should always be mangrove thickets, prickly swampland, and unforgiving marshy wilderness. For our own survival.

Terms like “carnage” and “total destruction,” common in news coverage, tend to be used to describe property in the aftermath of storms, ignoring both human lives and, in Florida, the fragile landscape on which those buildings stood. The barrier island of Fort Myers Beach looked like “somebody took an atom bomb and dropped it,” a resident told the Tampa Bay Times. Boats had been run aground far inland from their marinas and houses were blown to shreds, with whole neighborhoods reduced to their foundations. A Naples resident identified as a Mrs. Fuller told the Miami Herald, “It was almost like a dream,” referring to the flooding of her house and the ravaging of her neighborhood. A nightmare of Category 4 proportions.

The day after Hurricane Ian barreled ashore, public officials confirmed 12 deaths. As of this writing, the Florida toll stands at 119—many by drowning, others from trying to put up tarps to cover roofs, at least three whose oxygen tanks failed with the electricity outage, and two who committed suicide after seeing the extent of the damage. “We’ve seen bodies everywhere,” one resident told the Herald.

People in the area need basics like food, water, and medicine to be delivered along supply lines made increasingly unreliable by the climate crisis. Long-term casualties from early mortality caused by PTSD and exposure to sewage and other contaminants in the water may be invisible or hard to quantify in the years to come.

Our Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who had downplayed the ravages of the pandemic, acknowledged the situation by entering into a disaster-relief alliance with the same federal government he so often spurns. DeSantis promised a swift response, but he has also, unhelpfully, adopted a good-guy-versus-bad-guy mentality. “Don’t even think about looting,” the governor said at an October 1 press conference.

What is “looting” and how does it occur when people are suddenly without necessities and still struggling to unearth bodies from beneath the wreckage?

This tough-guy posturing also secretes a subtext of public shaming for those who remained in the area. But, as Phoebe Cain, a Vox executive director who grew up poor on Sanibel Island, noted, “Evacuating is HARD.” Her Twitter thread on September 29 emphasized the unpredictability of hurricanes in charting a way out of their path. “Can you get everyone in the car?” she wrote. “Will you be able to afford the gas? Where will you stay overnight?” A natural disaster can lead to “a financial one.”

Almost all of us in Florida have some stressful memory of fleeing from hurricanes—an intense fear of making the wrong decision. The uncertainty is worst for lower-income families and the disabled. One woman stayed for her husband, who is paralyzed with cancer: “I put a life preserver around his neck, kissed him, and told him I loved him.”

Evacuation is almost impossible when, as for Lee County, the order comes late and there is no gas to be found. Lee County has the highest death toll from the hurricane, accounting for more than half of all fatalities. Lee County Commission chair Cecil Pendergrass asserted that there was “well enough notice” while a spokesperson for the business community called the order “sort of last-minute.” DeSantis continues to defend the delayed decision—a product of misunderstanding both standard hurricane warnings and the unpredictability of nature.

As the hurricane was rendering the Fort Myers area unrecognizable, some reporters from national media outlets put on a show, perhaps to match the tone of Florida State University offering free football game tickets to those displaced or the debate on social media over whether video showed a shark swimming down a street.

Witness the antics of weatherman Jim Cantore, his legs swept out from beneath him by a tree limb, as he stood in the path of headwinds over 100 mph to prove hurricanes are ferocious. An individual fighting for balance in the middle of lashing rain satisfies a need for spectacle or diversion during calamity, even as it mocks the Florida Rule. It also feels both quaint and dangerous—a way of minimizing how little we actually control the environment of which we are a part, while providing clear evidence that we do not.

Many local journalists grappled, in real-time on social media, with accurately reporting the extent of the damage while also protecting their families and their own lives. Take, for instance, the Fort Myers News-Press, whose front pages documented the daily deaths and ongoing work to dredge through the devastation. “Eyewall replacement cycle turned Ian from a mess into a monster,” one headline read, as the staff worked to bear witness to the tragedy.

As the distance between “citizen” and “professional” collapsed, one central question seemed to haunt journalists: How is it possible to articulate the trauma of it all? Our emergency systems have been weakened by Covid-19, including our systems of reporting—and both have also been affected by climate crisis. Trauma is everywhere, and yet we must go on.

At what point do catastrophic events become ungovernable by the human imagination, and when does bearing witness become indistinguishable from survival?

An official, clearly delineated hurricane season occurs every year in Florida, June 1 through November 30. We are warned about the season, urged to prepare with updated personal evacuation plans, survival kits, buckets in which we are told to keep non-perishable food that can keep us going for up to three days. In the eventuality, that may not be enough. In 2004, five hurricanes hit the state in just six weeks, considered by the state’s health department one of the most “active, destructive, and costly hurricane seasons of the past century,” with $40 billion in damages and 100 deaths.

As part of these timeworn narratives, we accept that in Florida, for whatever reason, buildings will return, resurrected as if they had never been rendered down to nothing or to tombstones. We will rebuild. What once was can exist again.

Already, The New York Times writes about insurance rates and the obstacles to rebuilding—exactly where Hurricane Ian demonstrated the ability of a storm to wipe a place clean of human habitation. The same area will experience at least a foot of sea-level rise by 2070. Barrier islands, meanwhile, were always temporary bastions, meant to exist and not exist at the whims of the weather. Half-real, shimmering in the distance in a tantalizing way, but not for us.

The modern human imagination that has shaped Florida has centered on profit or willfully misunderstood the landscape by severely “terraforming” it in ways that weaken its own organic disaster response—including building unaffordable housing that favors affluent, largely white homeowners. Even Disney World touts that it was created out of worthless swampland. This impulse, this mortal wound we keep inflicting on Florida, has been exacerbated by three straight Republican governors who have allowed big developers and other destructive special interests to influence and create public policy. We are always draining swamps and marshes as if they were worthless. We rip out mangroves along the coast—natural barriers to storm surge—and are aghast at the catastrophes that occur and their impacts on human life.

We sit in cafés in our coastal towns, like Miami, say, and watch condominiums go up and listen to the people we’re with say, “Oh yes, this street floods often, but people just ignore it.”

That is just life under a regime that disregards the Florida Rule.

Experts begin issuing hurricane watches 48 hours before landfall. Spaghetti models—interwoven lines on a map meant to depict possible courses—are almost as much a source of dark humor here in Florida as an indicator of the range of threat. In recent years, these models change so frequently so fast that we must deflect the fear that even the experts don’t know.

DeSantis—fresh off of shipping legal immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard in a political stunt—pivoted to fact-based discourse as the hurricane strengthened, warning residents to take the incoming storm seriously. He urged people in affected areas to follow local evacuation orders and seek out higher ground. All 67 state counties were placed under a state of emergency and DeSantis activated 2,500 state National Guard personnel. State emergency officials stockpiled supplies of food, water, generators, pumps, and began setting up aid distribution centers.

“In some areas there will be catastrophic flooding and life-threatening storm surge,” the governor said in a press conference two days before it hit. “Mother Nature is a fearsome adversary, so please heed the warnings.”

If only the underpinnings of how a storm becomes more destructive had been as visible as the storm itself. If only a virus had been as visible as a storm.

DeSantis’s Covid policy has been a horrifying failure—a failure in transparency, a failure in continuity. As Florida became a national hot spot for the virus—which has, to date, killed an estimated 81,661 Floridians—DeSantis willfully dismantled all safeguards and told residents they were on their own. It was as if instead of issuing hurricane warnings and evacuation notices, DeSantis had, in the middle of the storm, turned off all the life-saving responses. Perhaps if we’d been pulling 82,000 bodies out of ruined buildings, it would have been different.

While the rational facade of his hurricane measures is both genuine and likely scripted to help his reelection chances, it hides policy failures. In addition to defending Lee County’s late evacuation order, DeSantis has politicized disaster fundraising by asking for donations to the state despite record budget windfalls, and failed to halt evictions in the affected areas. Even the optics of his pushing his reelection campaign while handing out food to hurricane survivors and appearing in spotless boots for a photo-op that held up hurricane relief efforts reflect a continued shaky grasp of the situation.

DeSantis’s Covid indifference may mean that people in hurricane shelters will spread Covid. His Covid policy has generally meant leaning on the individual heroics of hospitals and emergency response professionals to the point that it is not unreasonable to investigate how this affects Florida’s hurricane disaster response. With the prevalence of health care burnout, journalists doing the state government’s job to connect people to vaccines, and care units and emergency rooms regularly overwhelmed by pandemic surges made much worse by a DeSantis, Florida has stripped away layers of preparedness and documentation in ways that make the future difficult to predict.

Is Florida becoming a failed state?

The question acquires more urgency in the wake of Hurricane Ian, as DeSantis with his strongman facade tries to distract from the fragility of a Florida deprived of its natural defenses.

In vintage postcards bought in tourist shops in St. Augustine, or even in what once was Fort Myers, you find a celebration of Florida’s sugar-white beaches and the longest contiguous coastline in the nation (1,197 miles). Florida as a family-friendly playground and tropical paradise for retirees has become part of its national identity.

Visit Florida, a tourism agency that receives millions in state money every year and advertises the state as a novelty relocation, boasting that no matter where you go in Florida, “you’re never more than 60 miles from the nearest body of salt water.”

A sobering thought.

The legerdemain of Florida “beachfront” property is that it’s built on land that does not exist. To paraphrase a biblical saying, as DeSantis is wont to do, “From sand you build, to sand you shall return.”

Already, The New York Times estimates value the insured infrastructure losses from Hurricane Ian at $40 billion. Politico has reported that only 29 percent of 1.8 million households in the nine counties declared federal disaster areas have flood insurance and the poorest county, Hardee, has only a 1.3 percent coverage rate.

The same question will always rise to the surface after the storm surge: Why are we even considering rebuilding the same homes in the same places? It needs to be asked again and again, because it is continually ignored. It needs to be underscored and juxtaposed with reminders of the dead.

Should “resilience” mean not rebuilding?

In 2018, Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle with soul-destroying force. Along the Gulf from Mexico Beach to St. Marks, we endured nearly unprecedented damage as the storm snapped and shredded thousands of pine trees. It smashed buildings flat and sent debris hurtling through the air. Those of us who survived the worst of the storm’s march still flinch at the roar of high winds, the clatter of heavy rains. Local journalists, asked to hold close the details of the aftermath with precision, are haunted and forever changed by what they witnessed: the desolation of a place already called the Forgotten Coast. It’s a richly rural and biodiverse area of Florida best left to its wilderness and backroads, its palmettos and secret rivers.

The swath of land Hurricane Michael decimated is arguably better suited to surviving such a storm than the Fort Myers area. Would anything have been left of the Forgotten Coast after Michael if it had been developed like Southwest Florida?

Still, four years later gutted buildings lie abandoned, overgrown with vines and stained green with moss and lichen. The flapping of blue tarps stapled to gaping holes in roofs might be lingering hurricane damage or of more recent origin. Sunny meadows along the route inland to areas spared, like the Garden of Eden Trail, are dotted with piles of dead, cut-up trees, proving they were once forest. Near Torreya State Park, along the banks of the Apalachicola River, it is possible to still see the hurricane’s path from the air.

After little progress since Michael—in part because the Forgotten Coast has fewer rich people—Mexico Beach now rebuilds, in ways even less receptive to the disadvantaged. Condominiums crop up with the frequency of dandelions—and with less thoughtful planning. The imprint of the storm, the wound and the scar, has been repackaged into a Florida-toughness myth.

Out at the St. Marks Lighthouse, Hurricane Michael brought destruction, but the surrounding wildlife refuge covers 43 miles of resilient coastline and the area rebounded quickly. Saltwater in freshwater pools, uprooted trees, and broken concrete levees seemed paltry next to the area’s unchanging sense of permanence.

At the lighthouse, Hurricane Ian manifested not as storm surge or high winds, but as a haunting absence, a reverse storm surge. It made the water withdraw for hundreds of yards into the deeper sea.

Sand that had not touched the air for decades, if ever, lay as bare as if turning into desert. Pelicans circled overhead, wary; fiddler crabs briefly conquered new territory. The lighthouse looked out over an unfamiliar, almost post-apocalyptic landscape. A natural unnatural pause and a reminder.

Of loss.

Of absence.

Of the ways we’re affected by the things we can’t see or touch or know directly.

Eventually, the water returned and the wind blew gentle across a bracing, sunlit September day in the Panhandle.

As if nothing further south had ever happened at all.

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