Florida’s Fatal Attraction

Everyone wants a piece of it. That’s the problem.

An image of a Florida waterside property ruined by Hurricane Ian
Ben Hendren / Anadolu Agency / Getty

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).

In Florida’s beauty lies Florida’s downfall. For more and more people to live here, we must destroy more and more of the land. The once-plentiful marshes and swamps filtered surface water and slowed down flooding, but Florida has destroyed nearly half of its wetlands since 1845: We’ve drained, paved, and built on them. Mangrove trees stabilize coastlines, provide habitat for all kinds of animals, and mitigate storm surges. Yet developers, sometimes abetted by the state Department of Environmental Protection, rip them out and erect ineffective seawalls.

There are some 3 million more people in Florida than there were in 2010, a population surge that is depleting the Biscayne and Floridan aquifers—the drinking-water sources for 90 percent of us here—faster than they can replenish themselves. We pump too much out of the ground, allowing salt water to seep in. Our rivers and lakes are choking under mats of noxious blue-green algae, produced by runoff from overbuilding, farming, and all that Miracle-Gro we dump on our lawns and golf courses. It’s toxic for humans and kills fish too. And it hurts property values. Nobody wants to buy a house on the inland waterway or on a river that’s covered in slime and stinks like rotten meat, with dead manatees floating by the dock.

Yet for the northerners and midwesterners and everyone else flocking to Florida like so many piping plovers, Florida remains a modern Arcadia (there is, of course, a town in Florida called Arcadia). If you’re over 55 and want to settle somewhere that feels somehow immune to the usual pressures and responsibilities of society, you can buy a house in the Villages, a 98 percent white development of 33,000 acres with “town centers” sporting pretend-old buildings and “historical” markers commemorating events that never happened. Or perhaps you’d buy in Latitude Margaritaville, which promises endless pickleball, tiki huts, and maybe even a visit from Jimmy Buffett himself. If you are seriously rich, Palm Beach or Sarasota or Indian Creek Island, where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have a house, will insulate you from the uncomfortable inequities of contemporary America.

That, at least, is the fantasy—the state’s most famous resident is, after all, a talking mouse. Florida has traded in make-believe since the 1770s, when the botanist William Bartram explored the St. Johns country and rhapsodized about Florida’s cold, clear springs: “the blue ether of another world.” In the late 19th century, the industrialist Henry Flagler ginned up a luxury-tourism business by building hotels that looked like the Alhambra palace or the Villa d’Este.

Despite entrepreneurs’ best efforts at Disneyfication, though, Florida is an actual place, with actual people. Our natural ecosystem can handle wind and flood, 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 acknowledge that our state is in deep peril. The seas are rising an inch every three years. It’s raining more, flooding more, and staying hotter for longer, keeping the water warm and fueling bigger, badder storms.

Hurricane Ian ought to put an end to climate denialism. But it won’t, even though thousands will lose their houses and businesses, and cost insurers tens of billions of dollars. Only about 20 percent of residents in Ian’s path have coverage for flooding. Some insurers will no longer write policies in Florida. Why take a risk on waterfront property in a state known for devastating hurricanes? The governor called the legislature into a special session this past May, but the measures passed to help Floridians get affordable policies have yet to be implemented. Many victims of Ian will have to rely on FEMA and the kindness of strangers.

Few of Florida’s elected leaders want to talk about climate change, much less do anything about it. Senator Marco Rubio allows that the climate is changing, but says that maybe it’s not caused by human activity; maybe we need to study it some more; maybe let the private sector deal with it. Senator Rick Scott refused to utter the phrase climate change during the eight years he was governor (except to call it into question), and he let it be known that no state employee should either. Despite issues such as sunny-day flooding in Miami or the saltwater incursions that forced the city of Hallandale Beach to close six of its eight municipal wells, he would shrug off climate-change questions with “I’m not a scientist.”

When Ron DeSantis was elected governor in 2018, he at first seemed to take the climate crisis seriously. He appointed a “chief resilience officer” and created a task force to combat the toxic algae. But it soon became clear that DeSantis regards climate change as mainly a political problem rather than an environmental one. He’s made Everglades restoration a priority, perhaps inspired by polls showing that it’s also a priority for most Floridians, but he refuses to address the causes of climate change, which he refers to as “left-wing stuff.” In June, he banned state investment in companies that use sustainability ratings. I find it hard to see how fighting a culture war helps us survive the next monster storm.

Florida’s recovery from Ian will be slow. The damage will take months, maybe years, to fix. Some people still have blue tarps on their roofs from Hurricane Michael. I can look out my window and see the bottom half of a pine tree that snapped like a pencil in the high winds four years ago. But the horror will eventually recede in the mind, the way fear of the pandemic has receded. People will still come to Florida to live on the coast. They assume they’ll 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 fake and think we can go on building on the beautiful coasts, next to the beautiful sea, even as the beautiful sand washes away beneath our feet and the tide rises faster than we can outrun it.