Whenever a big natural disaster hits, there’s a natural tendency to say: What were we thinking about living in (insert location here)?
The argument continues: (Insert location here) is not suitable for human habitation. Nature never intended humans to live in (insert location here), and now we are paying the price for arrogantly tempting Mother Nature!
Right on cue, Politico obliges with its piece about — of course — Hurricane Irma and Florida:
So in the 20th century, Florida declared war on its common enemy, vowing to subdue Mother Nature…. But Mother nature still gets her say.
I was thinking about all this on Thursday while evacuating my family from our home in Miami to my mother-in-law’s home near Orlando…. Our house is about 17 feet above sea level, which is practically Everest in South Florida terms, but we were still in a mandatory evacuation zone, because nothing in this part of the world is safe from a killer like Irma. Over the last century, we’ve built a weird but remarkable civilization down here in a weird and unsustainable way. This weekend, history’s bill might come due.
To be sure, we’re not saying that life in Florida is risk-free. Yet the same can be said, and generally is said, about every place that Americans want to live.
Consider California’s wildfires and earthquakes. Or the drought that crept across the rest of the west over the past several years, until this year. Much of the same, if not more, can be said about parched, low-lying, flood- and tsunami-prone lands outside of the United States.
The simple truth is that man lives in an uneasy relationship which his Mother Nature. There is no place on earth that is or will always be fit for human habitation.
Most of the time, it’s about water
The interesting point about Michael Grunwald’s piece, “A Requiem for Florida, the Paradise That Should Never Have Been,” is that he doesn’t blame the overpopulation of Florida on its heat and humidity, but on water itself.
Water control—even more than air conditioning or bug spray or Social Security—enabled the spectacular growth of South Florida. It’s a pretty awesome place to live, now that so much of its swamp has been drained, much better than Boston or Brooklyn in the winter, and, for the obvious economic and political reasons, much better than Havana or Caracas all year long.
Sure, the heat was pretty bad, too. This may be why — even though the state was “settled” half a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock — a big part of it, the Everglades, was described as late as 1897 as “much unknown to the white man as the heart of Africa.”
But Standard Oil baron Henry Flagler’s decision to build a railroad down the east coast set the state for multiple land bubbles in the 1920s. And yet:
Hurricanes routinely tore through South Florida even before hundreds of gleaming skyscrapers and thousands of red-roof subdivisions sprouted in their path. Our collective willingness not to dwell on that ugly inevitability has also enabled the region’s spectacular growth.
And thus ended Florida’s roaring 1920s:
In 1926, a few weeks after the Miami Herald urged its readers not to worry about hurricanes because “there is more risk to life from venturing across a busy street,” a Category 4 storm flattened Miami, killing 400 and abruptly ending the coastal boom.Then in 1928, another Category 4 storm blasted Lake Okeechobee through its flimsy dike, killing 2,500 and abruptly ending the Everglades boom. It was the second-deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Decades passed, and hurricane-memories faded, as they will again:
America finally did get serious about draining the swamp. The Army Corps of Engineers, the shock troops in the nation’s war on Mother Nature, built the most elaborate water management system of its day, 2,000 miles of levees and canals along with pumps so powerful some of the engines would have to be cannibalized from nuclear submarines. The engineers aimed to seize control of just about every drop of water that falls on South Florida, whisking it out to sea to prevent flooding in the flatlands. They made it possible for Americans to farm 400,000 acres of sugar fields in the northern Everglades, to visit Disney World at the headwaters of the Everglades, to drive on the Palmetto and Sawgrass Expressways where palmettos and sawgrass used to be. They made South Florida safe for a long boom that has occasionally paused but has never really stopped, bringing 8 million people to the Everglades watershed, pushing the state’s population from 27th in the nation before World War II to third in the nation today.
Almost everywhere, human life is unsustainable
The problem with each such story, including the one above, is that every place on earth is, in its own way, unsustainable. And it’s often about the very same issue: water.
Consider California and much of the West: Water sources are few and scattered. It’s no more “natural” to be living in California or Texas than in Florida. But many people do, and they almost always willing to pay the price for doing so.
Certainly there are bugs in the system, including perpetual interferences like the National Flood Insurance Program. But the pros and cons of life in any one place must be balanced out by the costs and benefits associated with (pick your place) blizzards or heat waves.
After a major disaster strikes, the tendency is strong to retreat to what once seemed safe. Call it “rust belt” nostalgia. Let’s forget about life after air conditioning, irrigation, dams, and other forms of engineered water management.
The reality is different. Hurricanes, as impactful and property-damaging as they are, are merely one of the costs on a Florida ledger sheet that also includes many benefits.
(Trees bend in the tropical storm wind along North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard as Hurricane Irma hits the southern part of the state on September 10 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The powerful hurricane made landfall in the United States in the Florida Keys at 9:10 a.m. after raking across the north coast of Cuba. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)