The governor needs to learn from history to fight this pandemic | Column
Floridians' needs come before a governor's pride, writes state Sen. Janet Cruz.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Friday, July 17.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Friday, July 17. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published July 22, 2020

Clarence Darrow once said, “History repeats itself. That’s one of the things wrong with history.” Darrow was right. As a defense attorney, Darrow is perhaps most well-known for his representation of John T. Scopes in the infamous Scopes v. Tennessee trial. Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which outlawed the teaching of evolution. Darrow sided with Scopes, and with science, but ultimately lost the trial.

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa
Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa

In today’s society, many of our leaders would do well to find themselves siding with science, but instead, they prefer to embroil themselves in battles of petulant partisanship, with their brow set exclusively on future ambitions. Gov. Ron DeSantis is guilty of precisely this, demonstrating pusillanimous leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeSantis should familiarize himself with Darrow’s quote to avoid making similar mistakes that past obstinate administrations have made. In 1926, Florida was in the middle of a land boom, specifically South Florida. This boom led to the formation of numerous well-known cities, from Hialeah to Hollywood, due in large part to an aggressive advertising campaign by the state. They claimed they would drain the Everglades and create a paradise. This is not how things would work out.

Draining the Everglades and immediately creating an inhabitable South Florida was a fool’s errand. The state, however, had already invested far too much political and monetary capital in this concept. They ignored the concerns raised by various locals and newspapers about the dangers of flooding and impending storms. Eventually, the state created multiple canals out of Lake Okeechobee and left one roughly six-foot tall earthen mound as the main dike protecting civilization.

In September 1926, a hurricane came, and as many citizens predicted, Lake Okeechobee flooded. South Florida was ravaged, and 372 Floridians died. Following this, the state immediately entered into damage control. The Everglades Drainage District maintained that the deaths were not on their hands. Then-Gov. John Martin made the remark that those who criticized the drainage commission were “reckless and foolish” for attributing blame to them — it was not a human error, but an “act of God.” The governor insisted we would not see a storm like this again, and they rebuilt the six-foot tall earthen dike.

In 1928, another hurricane came (an event retold memorably by Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God), and 2,823 Floridians lost their lives. The causalities were overwhelmingly Black Americans in impoverished areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee. Initially, the state remained in denial that the storm had that great of an effect, but Gov. Martin toured the aftermath.

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Observing the carnage firsthand, he finally let citizens’ needs supersede pride. It cost nearly 3,000 additional lives for our government to make the right decision. Gov. Martin finally turned to the federal government for aid, which resulted in the construction of the Hoover Dike to prevent any future catastrophes.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is following in Gov. Martin’s footsteps. He has consistently refused to act cautiously in the face of COVID-19 and has gone so far as to rebuke and taunt those who criticize his administration’s performance. Florida is breaking U.S. case records almost daily, and Floridians are dying. As of Wednesday, 5,459 Floridians have died due to COVID-19, and the governor’s press secretary (now former press secretary) spends time on Twitter praising the decrease from 12,000 new positive cases to a “mere” 9,000.

DeSantis and his administration are barreling ahead in search of herd immunity, where the weak of the herd are lost so that the rest of the herd can continue on. This strategy might work well for impala on the African plains, but the calculus isn’t the same when it is our grandparents, our teachers or anyone that is immunocompromised in our state.

I desperately hope that the governor will come to his senses, much like Gov. Martin did in 1928, but my hope feels misplaced. The governor has not pulled back re-opening, continues to resist a statewide mask mandate, recycles the same talking points, and is dead set on forcing schools open in mid-August.

“History repeats itself. That’s one of the things wrong with history.” To all Floridians and Americans lost to coronavirus, you will be missed dearly, rest in peace.

Janet Cruz, a Democrat, represents District 18 in the Florida Senate.