Thursday, July 19, 2018
Opinion

Oh, Florida! Irma's gone, but she left behind plenty of lessons for us

I don't want to make light of the misery and death that Hurricane Irma inflicted on Florida this month. A lot of it was ugly, and some of it was downright criminal. We saw greed and pettiness on display, and it brought illness and death.

We also saw heartwarming images of courage and kindness. We saw a nun with a chainsaw cutting up downed trees after learning about chainsaws on Google, and a man who gave up the last generator so that someone who needed it more could have it.

This being Florida, of course, we saw some very Florida things happen too:

• A sign language interpreter in Manatee County who didn't really know how to do sign language flashed a bunch of gibberish during a televised pre-Irma news conference, including this sterling sentence: "Help you at that time too use bear big."

 

• Two shirtless guys in Jacksonville tried to steal a metal power pole, and even managed to get it tied to the top of their SUV and attach a little safety rag to the end of it before the cops showed up.

• A Fort Myers woman who'd recently undergone a double-organ transplant painted a sign that said, "HOT SINGLE FEMALE SEEKS SEXY LINEMAN TO ELECTRIFY HER LIFE" and sure enough, she got her power turned back on.

What was interesting to me, though, is that even before Irma made landfall in the Keys, all the Smart People had already begun dropping their weighty opinions about Florida on our heads.

TV commentators pontificated on how Irma might at last be The Big One sent to chastise Floridians for our hubris and wash away our ignorance and corruption. (If Hurricane Andrew couldn't do that 25 years ago, then Irma sure couldn't.)

Then came the think pieces and the hot takes. "Florida is impossible!" they said. "Nobody in their right mind lives there! Good Lord, they have hurricanes!"

Does anyone write that kind of thing about California after earthquakes, or Kansas after tornadoes or Wisconsin after snowstorms? No, only Florida gets depicted as an uninhabitable hellhole.

This is, of course, Grade-A baloney. People have been living in Florida for thousands of years. The original Floridians — the Calusa, the Tequesta, the Apalachee and the Tocobaga — made a comfortable home here long before the first tin-hatted Spanish conquistador showed up.

They knew how to live in harmony with the landscape. They ate lots of seafood, dressed to keep cool in a hot climate and didn't build anything on the coast that couldn't survive a storm surge. They also never wore sandals with socks.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

If we want to keep living in Florida, we need to follow their example. Instead of trying to conquer nature, we need to figure out how to fit into it.

We know hurricanes are going to keep hitting us. We know the sea level is rising. We need to stop ignoring those factors and instead adapt to them.

If we want to keep our lights and air-conditioning on, then we need to figure out how to make our power grid stronger or find ways to better back it up. If we want to keep flushing our toilets during a storm, then we need to fix our sewer systems so they don't overflow into our bays and rivers every time there's a little rain. If we want to keep our population growing, then we need to figure out how to avoid creating bottlenecks during evacuations. If we want our houses to stand up to big storms, then the building codes that worked in South Florida should probably become requirements all over the state.

If you think all that will cost too much, then we need to find a way to pay for it, because that's what it's going to take to keep on living in Florida. Hurricane preparedness is not cheap.

In the past, Florida's reaction to hurricanes always reminded me of a story that Sam Spade tells in Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon. Spade says he was hired to find a man named Flitcraft. The man had led a fairly humdrum life until one day he simply vanished "like a fist when you open your hand," Spade says.

Turns out he had moved to a different town and started leading the exact same life as before, just under a different name.

Flitcraft explains his disappearance by saying that one day he'd been walking down a city street and a steel beam fell 10 stories from a construction site to land smack in front of him. One more step and he'd have been killed. Seeing that made him feel "like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works," Spade says.

That's why he changed his life — but then he settled back into the same rut he was in before. As Spade puts it, "He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

Florida, we're Flitcraft, and Irma is the beam. Let's not pretend there won't be more.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

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