ORLANDO, Fla.—The first Americans to spend much time in South Florida were the U.S. Army men who chased the Seminole Indians around the peninsula in the 1830s. And they hated it. Today, their letters read like Yelp reviews of an arsenic café, denouncing the region as a “hideous,” “loathsome,” “diabolical,” “God-abandoned” mosquito refuge.
“Florida is certainly the poorest country that ever two people quarreled for,” one Army surgeon wrote. “It was the most dreary and pandemonium-like region I ever visited, nothing but barren wastes.” An officer summarized it as “swampy, low, excessively hot, sickly and repulsive in all its features.” The future president Zachary Taylor, who commanded U.S. troops there for two years, groused that he wouldn’t trade a square foot of Michigan or Ohio for a square mile of Florida. The consensus among the soldiers was that the U.S. should just leave the area to the Indians and the mosquitoes; as one general put it, “I could not wish them all a worse place.” Or as one lieutenant complained: “Millions of money has been expended to gain this most barren, swampy, and good-for-nothing peninsula.
Today, Florida’s southern thumb has been transformed into a subtropical paradise for millions of residents and tourists, a sprawling megalopolis dangling into the Gulf Stream that could sustain hundreds of billions of dollars in damage if Hurricane Irma makes a direct hit. So it’s easy to forget that South Florida was once America’s last frontier, generally dismissed as an uninhabitable and undesirable wasteland, almost completely unsettled well after the West was won. “How far, far out of the world it seems,” Iza Hardy wrote in an 1887 book called Oranges and Alligators: Sketches of South Florida. And Hardy ventured only as far south as Orlando, which is actually central Florida, nearly 250 miles north of Miami. Back then, only about 300 hardy pioneers lived in modern-day South Florida. Miami wasn’t even incorporated as a city until 1896. And even then an early visitor declared that if he owned Miami and hell, he would rent out Miami and live in hell.
There was really just one reason South Florida remained so unpleasant and so empty for so long: water. The region was simply too soggy and swampy for development. Its low-lying flatlands were too vulnerable to storms and floods. As a colorful governor with the colorful name of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward put it: “Water is the common enemy of the people of Florida.” So in the 20th century, Florida declared war on its common enemy, vowing to subdue Mother Nature, eventually making vast swaths of floodplains safe for the president to build golf courses and Vanilla Ice to flip houses and my kids to grow up in the sunshine. 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.
But Mother Nature still gets her say. Water control has ravaged the globally beloved Everglades and the rest of the South Florida ecosystem in ways that imperil our way of life as well as the local flora and fauna. And sometimes, as we’re about to be reminded, water can’t be controlled. 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.
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, which, incidentally, one Seminole War veteran called “by far the poorest and most miserable region I ever beheld.” 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.
More than a half-century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, a Spanish adventurer named Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed in North Florida, and began preparing for battle with French Lutherans who coveted the same territory. Then a hurricane destroyed the French fleet on the open seas. Menendez took this as a sign from God, and gleefully slaughtered the rest of the “evil and detestable Protestants” in an inlet he proudly named Matanzas, Spanish for “massacre.” He went on to create St. Augustine, America’s oldest permanent settlement, an enduring reminder that Florida’s history was forged by storms as well as blood.
Menendez dreamed of colonizing the whole peninsula, but he made no progress in the backwaters of southern Florida; as his nephew reported to the king in 1570, the entire region was “liable to overflow, and of no use.” And it stayed that way for the next few centuries. That’s because it was dominated by the Everglades, an inhospitable expanse of impenetrable sawgrass marshland, described in an 1845 Treasury Department report as “suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles.” White men avoided it, because they viewed wetlands as wastelands. As late as 1897, five years after the historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the Western frontier, an explorer named Hugh Willoughby embarked on a Lewis-and-Clark-style journey of discovery through the Everglades in a dugout canoe. “It may seem strange, in our days of Arctic and African exploration for the public to learn that in our very midst, in one of our Atlantic coast states, we have a tract of land 130 miles long and 70 miles wide that is as much unknown to the white man as the heart of Africa,” Willoughby wrote.
But white men began to realize that South Florida had real potential if they could figure out how to drain its “monstrous” swamp. Governor Broward vowed to dig a few canals and create an instant “Empire of the Everglades,” a winter garden that would grow food for the world and cities larger than Chicago. Swindlers sold swampland to suckers, turning Florida real estate into a land-by-the-gallon punchline. Pioneers flocked to long-forgotten marshy boom towns with names like Utopia and Hope City and Gladesview, buying lots that looked great in the dry season only to find that they still flooded regularly during the rainy season.
Meanwhile, the Standard Oil baron Henry Flagler built a railroad down the east coast, luring tourists to beachfront towns like Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, setting the stage for a wild 1920s land bubble that rivaled the 17th century Dutch tulip craze. Motor-mouthed “binder boys” in knickers known as “acreage trousers” mobbed the streets of Miami, harassing pedestrians to buy and sell lots that often changed hands three times a day. One entrepreneur bought and resold a contract for a $10,000 profit on a stroll down Flagler Street. The New York Times started a stand-alone Florida real estate section. “Nobody in Florida thinks of anything else in these days when the peninsula is jammed with visitors from end to end and side to side,” the Times reported. The insanity was immortalized by the Marx Brothers movie Cocoanuts, with Groucho capturing Florida’s sleazy new land ethic: “You can even get stucco! Oh boy, can you get stucco.”
Pretty soon, South Florida got stucco. 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, and afterward Florida’s attorney general testified before Congress that much of the southern half of his state might be unsuited to human habitation: “I’ve heard it advocated that what the people ought to do is build a wall down there and keep the military there to keep people from coming in.”
Needless to say, nobody built a wall. But 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.
But they made South Florida safe only most of the time, not all of the time. Now the Big One might be coming, with millions more people and structures in harm’s way than there were in 1926 or 1928. And Mother Nature looks pissed.
Last year, Florida’s “Treasure Coast,” about 100 miles north of Miami, made national news when its sparkling estuary was shrouded in toxic glop that looked like guacamole and smelled like a sewer. This was an economic as well as environmental disaster, shredding the fishing and tourism industries around the town of Stuart. And it’s not a huge stretch to think of it as the latest damage created by the 1928 hurricane. Water managers don’t want Lake Okeechobee’s dike to fail again now that there’s a civilization behind it, so they routinely blast filthy water from the lake into the fragile estuaries to the east and west. Sometimes, glop happens.
The problem, like most problems in South Florida, is a water problem. Half the Everglades has been drained or paved for agriculture and development, so in the rainy season, water managers have to dump excess water into estuaries and what’s left of the Everglades. Then it’s no longer available in the dry season, which is why South Florida now faces structural droughts that create wildfires in the Everglades and endanger the region’s drinking water, which happens to sit underneath the Everglades. Meanwhile, the Everglades itself—once reviled as a vile backwater, now revered as an ecological treasure—has all kinds of problems of its own, including 69 endangered species. In 2000, Congress approved the largest environmental restoration project in history to try to resuscitate the Everglades, an unprecedented effort to fix South Florida’s water problems for people and farms as well as nature. But 17 years later, virtually no progress has been made. It’s a real mess.
But the fundamental issue is that South Florida is an artificial civilization, engineered and air-conditioned to insulate its residents and tourists from the realities of its natural landscape. We call animal control when alligators wander into our backyards, and it doesn’t occur to us that we’ve wandered into the alligators’ backyard. Most residents of suburban communities carved out of Everglades swampland—Weston, Wellington, Miami Springs, Miami Lakes—are blissfully oblivious to the intricate water diversion strategies that their government officials use to keep them dry every day. Most South Floridians don’t think much about climate change, either, even though it’s creating more intense storms, even though the rising seas around Miami Beach now flood low-lying neighborhoods on sunny days during high tide. People tend not to think too much about existential threats to the places they live. They just live.
And they keep coming. Twenty-five years ago, Hurricane Andrew ripped through Miami’s southern exurbs, but the homes destroyed were quickly replaced, and most of us who live here now weren’t here then. So we weren’t really ready for Irma, even though at some level we knew it was possible. It’s conceivable that Irma will finally shut down our insatiable growth machine, but I wouldn’t bet on that. Our inclination towards collective amnesia is just too strong.
The thing is, it’s really nice here, except when it isn’t. Those Seminole War soldiers would be stunned to see how this worthless hellscape of swarming mosquitoes and sodden marshes has become a high-priced dreamscape of swimming pools and merengue and plastic surgery and Mar-a-Lago. It probably isn’t sustainable. But until it gets wiped out—and maybe even after—there’s still going to be a market for paradise. Most of us came here to escape reality, not to deal with it.