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It's official: Florida joins the 20 million club

Crowds on Clearwater Beach this spring are just one sign of a rapidly growing population. Demographers predicted Florida, third behind California and Texas, would surpass the 20 million mark.
Published Dec. 23, 2015

Wag your elbows. Flap them as if you're a bird. Enjoy that feeling of freedom now, because elbow room in Florida is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida's population has now topped 20 million people.

Prognosticators have been predicting this would happen for years, the way they've been predicting the number of Florida tourists would someday top 100 million.

At last, on Tuesday, the census made it official: Florida's population in 2015 reached 20,271,272. Only California (39,144,818) and Texas (27,469,114) had more people, according to the bureau.

That means Florida — which until the middle of the 20th century had the smallest population of any Southern state — now has more people in it than the nation of Chile. Look out Syria and Sri Lanka, you're next.

The Sunshine State added 365,703 residents this year, surpassing New York, which it eclipsed a year ago to become America's third largest state. That was a bigger year-to-year jump than even California. Only Texas had a bigger numerical gain, adding 490,000 residents between July 2014 and July 2015.

So where did all those new Floridians come from? About 30,000 were babies. That part is what's called "natural population increase" — in other words, the number of people born that exceeds the number that died, explained census spokesman Robert Bernstein.

But as usual, the bigger increases resulted from hordes of people moving to Florida, despite the fact that it's the U.S. capital of mortgage fraud and identity theft, not to mention ranking No. 1 for sinkholes, lightning strikes, shark bites and concealed weapons permits.

Florida is more punch line than state. It's constantly identified as being full of hapless Florida Men and Florida Women: dopey criminals who can't shoot straight, road-raging drivers who run over themselves, machete-waving neighbors upset about hedge-trimming. Earlier this year on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart called the state a "cockroach-choking, hazard-infested, Hooters-dining, reptile-abusing, Everglades-draining . . . 24-hour mugshot factory."

Yet Florida's future depends on people in other states ignoring the pratfalls in their pursuit of paradise. In 2009, the New Yorker dubbed Florida "the Ponzi State," because its economy requires a constant influx of new residents or everything grinds to a halt.

As if to illustrate the state's dual nature, last month a Harris poll found that Florida was first on the list of states to which people from other states want to move — but also No. 7 on the list of states people do not want to live in.

Plenty of people did relocate here, both from inside and outside the United States, their numbers steadily increasing since 2010, according to Richard L. Doty, a University of Florida demographer. Over the past year about 200,000 people moved to Florida from other states, particularly New York and other northeastern states.

Those who relocate here "constantly cite the weather and the fact that Florida is a relatively cheaper place to live," Doty said.

During the recession, he noted, home prices up North had slumped, making it difficult to sell them and move south. Now the prices have recovered, he said, and retirees can sell a home for $800,000 there, then move to Florida and pick up a condominium unit for $300,000.

Meanwhile 130,000 people this past year moved to Florida from outside the continental U.S. Puerto Rico, for instance, is awash in economic turmoil right now as its government nears bankruptcy, driving some 50,000 Puerto Ricans to relocate — many of them to Central Florida.

Amnesia may be as big a factor in Florida's renewed growth as any other factor.

Historian Gary Mormino noted that a decade has passed since Florida last was hit by a hurricane — the longest safe spell in modern Florida history, giving newcomers a false sense of security. The National Weather Service says 40 percent of the hurricanes that hit the United States from 1851 to 2010 made landfall in Florida. Four battered the state in 2004, and another three crashed ashore here in 2005.

Mormino, author of a cultural and social history of Florida called Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams, suggested people are experiencing a similar forgetfulness in regards to the recent housing bubble that preceded the recession. He sees Florida leaders pursuing a growth-at-all-costs agenda, free of the restraints from the state's now dismantled growth management system.

"It's troubling to me that a lot of people are hurtling into the 21st century with very few lessons learned," he said. "It seems reckless."

He wondered if the state's continued growth will ever reach a tipping point, "a point where the tourists and retirees and even Colombian drug lords with money to invest in Miami real estate will say Florida is just too crowded."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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