The Fatal Attraction to FloridaBreaking News
tags: climate change, Florida, disasters, hurricanes
Diane Roberts teaches at Florida State University and is the author of Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America.
Boats on roofs; cars out to sea; coastal towns underwater. The sand from Naples Beach now chokes Naples streets. Hurricane Ian’s 150-mph winds yanked houses off of their foundation in Fort Myers, a pretty town once known for its avenues of royal palms. As many as 50 people reportedly are dead in Florida. In some of our glossiest, most affluent, most densely populated communities, survivors now sift through the ruins of their slice of paradise.
Up north in Tallahassee, where I live, we were just beyond Ian’s western reach, but a few days ago it looked as if the storm was heading straight for us. Like most everyone else in Florida, we prepped for it: filling our gas tanks, anchoring our patio furniture, trotting through the grocery store buying batteries, toilet paper, cans of tuna, bags of ice, six-packs of beer. City-power crews geared up. Florida State and Florida A&M universities geared down, canceling classes.
We knew it could have been us. Four years ago this month, it was us. The Category 5 Hurricane Michael roared ashore at Mexico Beach, drowning the coast with a 20-foot surge, washing out a section of U.S. 98, laying waste to the land all the way into Georgia. A pecan tree fell on my mother’s house; an old cedar barely missed mine.
I’m a native Floridian, an ever-rarer species in a state where most people come from somewhere else. My family goes back eight generations, to a farm boy who fought for the colonists in the Revolutionary War, then abandoned his newly free country for Spanish East Florida. King Charles IV was giving away large tracts of land—already, proto-Floridians loved a good real-estate deal. I grew up in Florida’s capital, 25 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, a kind of anti-Miami—luxuriously empty, with red clay hills and forests full of oak, magnolia, and pine trees—and on what is now called the Forgotten Coast, long stretches of beach without condominium towers or resorts or pastel mansions.
Before the climate began to warm so precipitously, this part of Florida got pretty cold in winter. Not Wisconsin cold, but some years it snowed. Horrified northerners stopping for the night on their way down to a new life couldn’t wait to get back on the road to the tropical Eden promised by their Realtors. In recent years, almost 1,000 people have moved to Florida every day, drawn by comparatively cheap property, no state income tax, and (for some) Florida’s belligerent politics. Governor Ron DeSantis has made a national name for himself—perhaps in service of a 2024 presidential run—by attacking federal COVID policy, decrying “critical race theory,” and flying Venezuelan asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard, all in the name of owning the libs. But many incomers are seduced simply by the fantasy of endless summer and never again having to shovel snow.
Florida’s population has been mushrooming for decades. In 1960, not quite 5 million people lived here. Now it’s nearly 22 million, most wanting to settle as close to water as they can afford. The Florida dream is that when you look out over your condo balcony, you see the Gulf or the Atlantic, or a lake ringed with cypresses. Killer hurricanes don’t figure in these visions of sea and sun. The problem is that this torrent of people endangers what they come for: the sugar-sand beaches, the boating, the fishing, and the charismatic wildlife (panthers, manatees, and bottlenose dolphins).