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  1. Environment

Oh, Florida! Here's how to survive life in the hot zone

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Visitors to Clearwater Beach wade in the shallow tide south of Pier 60 on Friday (6/7/19). It’s that time of year again--stingrays have recently given birth along the gulf coast as tourist season is ramping up.
Published Jun. 26

People think we don't have seasons in Florida, but that's not true. We do have seasons. It's just that they're all variations on summer. There's fall-summer, winter-summer, spring-summer and, of course, actual summer.

Actual summer is the worst. The sun scorches down as if it was perched about a foot above the Earth. The heat is truly brutal. Go to the beach to swim and you'll splash in water that's as warm as a bath. Up North, people have heated pools. Down here, we need pools that are cooled.

If you have stepped outside lately, you may not be surprised to learn that, going by average temperatures, Florida is the No. 1 warmest state in the country (which means our ranking in this category is the same as our ranking for identity theft and consumer fraud). We far surpass the second-place state, Hawaii, even though it's closer to the equator.

Before air-conditioning became widespread, the heat meant most of the state shut down for the summer. Tourist resorts and hotels closed their doors until slightly cooler weather returned. They could do that because nobody would willingly set foot in summertime Florida who didn't already live here.

Can you imagine doing that now? "Sorry, folks, you have to leave now, it's June 21 and Disney World is closing until Sept. 23. Make sure you buy lots of rat-shaped ice cream bars on your way out of the gate before it all melts."

But those days are long gone, thanks to that wonderful cool-air invention pioneered by Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola. Now everything is air conditioned, even our baseball stadium. So as the temperature outside soars up to a feels-like triple-digit mark, you can literally chill in our antisweat lodge, the thermostat cranked down to 68 degrees.

Until, of course, you have to leave the house to go somewhere — the grocery store, the office, the gas station. Before you can even lock the door behind you, you're turning into a puddle. Then you climb into the car and fry your thighs on the scorching seats and burn your fingers on the metal part of the seat belt.

Florida natives and folks who have lived her a while have adapted. We've learned some summer survival techniques I am happy to pass along to you:

1. Don't wear dark clothing. It absorbs heat. Even Florida goths know this. Instead, wear light-colored, lightweight clothing — or no clothing at all. (There's a reason why Florida has more nudist resorts than any other state.) If you go the no-clothing route, by the way, be sure to apply sunscreen everywhere.

2. Always keep a cool beverage close by. I'm fond of sweet tea, but I leave it to you to decide what works best with your metabolism. There are plenty of Florida watering holes and Jimmy Buffett songs that can help you in making a selection.

3. Some old-school folks carry an umbrella to ward off the sun's intense rays. I prefer to wear a hat whenever going outdoors, ideally one that lets a breeze blow through (assuming there's a breeze).

4. Remember that the best parking space isn't the closest parking space. It's the one that's in the shade. Try to walk in the shade as much as possible, too, and if you have to stop, don't stop in the sun. Look for oaks and pines for shelter. Palm trees generally don't provide enough shade to speak of.

5. In your car, carry either a sunshade for your dash or a hand towel to drape over your steering wheel. Otherwise you're going to smell frying flesh when you grab hold of it. When you get out of your car, make sure you don't leave pets or people behind to swelter in what's going to become an oven. Also, don't leave anything in there that could melt. Twenty years later I am still haunted by what happened with a vinyl LP I had borrowed from a friend. It took about 10 years before he would speak to me again.

6. Make sure at some point in the summer you take a trip to splash into Florida's magnificent springs, or at least tube down a spring-fed river. Because the water is flowing up from underground, it averages between 70 and 75 degrees year-round. It's the very definition of refreshing on a hot day.

You need to know these things because Florida's heat is getting hotter, thanks to climate change. Last month was the hottest May on record. Federal climate experts have predicted a big increase in the next decade in the number of days above 95 degrees.

I think we here in Florida might be better prepared for rising temperatures than the rest of the country. Given our experience, we could help people in the other states learn how to cope with life in the hot zone. It could become an economic boon. We could market our own line of Florida Man hats, sunshades and cooling beverages!

I can even foresee some Florida real estate genius embracing sea level rise as a selling point: "On those days when you're hot and sweaty, why not enjoy a dip in that tepid ocean water now flooding your yard? It's the Florida way to get cool — believe it or not! Here, have some Florida Man iced tea."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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