Florida is a place founded on hype and hubris, half in the Global South, half in the Deep South, as diverse as California but politically more kin to Alabama or Georgia than you might think, full of people from anywhere prepared to swallow anything -- especially if it's unlikely. In 1994, the Virgin Mary appeared in Fort Lauderdale on a grilled cheese sandwich. Three springs in three towns claim to be the Fountain of Youth. There's a street in Lake Wales where things roll uphill. The nice doctor in West Palm Beach promises he can sculpt your aging carcass into a simulacrum of a 25-year-old. And there's always a piece of swampland going cheap: You could build a theme park or a strip mall or a gated community, name it after whatever bits of the ecosystem you killed when you clearcut it, and make your fortune.
My family arrived in Florida in 1799. They've made it through a lot of hurricanes, to say nothing of three Seminole Wars, yellow fever, the Civil War, the collapse of the cotton market, the influenza epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the property boom of the 1950s, the streaking craze of 1974, the pastel menace of the 1980s and the 2000 presidential vote recount imbroglio.
Incited by Irma, the sea certainly stomped all over Barbuda, St. Martin, the British Virgin Islands and other parts of the Caribbean. Florida was lucky that Irma crashed into Cuba and weakened. Even so, 75 percent of Floridians lost power during the storm. Many still don't have water or lights or air conditioning. People are not merely inconvenienced, they have started dying -- in the third-most-populous state in the most technologically advanced nation on Earth.
The truth is, once we return from our short exile, we'll probably forget and go back to our self-destructive ways, rebuilding on ever-eroding barrier islands, draining and paving the wetlands that might protect us from climate change and hurricane harm. The last we saw Irma, it was a rainy patch wafting around the upper Mississippi Valley like a disconsolate ghost. Here in Florida, I'm sensing a certain petulance taking hold. Even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the first responders, the various state agencies and good old ordinary humans all seem to have done a fine job coping with the storm, and we all enjoyed the images of Florida heroism -- the Busch Gardens flamingos marching single-file to safety, the intrepid boaters rescuing stranded pregnant ladies and old people, the Key West street roosters wrapped in newspaper, ready to be evacuated in the back seat of a car - perhaps it's only natural to wonder why we can't avoid this hassle altogether. It's the 21st century! We have smart houses and self-driving cars and robots! It's not reasonable that some alchemy of warm water, cool air and thunderclouds can just rear up and disrupt all human life for hundreds of miles. I mean, who's the boss around here?
Short answer: not us. We aren't the boss. We'll never be the boss. The environment, however much we degrade it, rules. Where I live in North Florida, we have hills, which (though our many trees like to hurl themselves down on our power lines) keep us safe from the storm surges at the beaches. In South Florida, where the population is much larger and much denser, and much closer to the rising seas, the dikes, the canals and all those pumps give an illusion of control. But it's only an illusion. Miami can flood on a calm, sunny day. And even the hills of Tallahassee cannot shield us from a rapidly changing climate. Yet most of Florida's elected leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott, won't even talk about climate change. What's the big deal? We have flood insurance!
Florida sells itself as a dream, a low-tax, low-regulation, open-for-business paradise dangling like a pearl off the end of America. But look at your screen, look out your window: Geography is destiny. Nature always wins in the end.
Diane Roberts is the author of "Dream State," a historical memoir of Florida, and "Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America." She teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee.