Today, Florida’s southern thumb has been transformed into a subtropical paradise for millions of residents and tourists, a sprawling megalopolis dangling into the Gulf Stream that could sustain hundreds of billions of dollars in damage if Hurricane Irma makes a direct hit. So it’s easy to forget that South Florida was once America’s last frontier, generally dismissed as an uninhabitable and undesirable wasteland, almost completely unsettled well after the West was won. ... Miami wasn’t even incorporated as a city until
1896. And even then an early visitor declared that if he owned Miami and hell, he would rent out Miami and live in hell.
In 1896, close to 400 people crowded onto the second floor of the Lobby Pool Room (large building in center of photo) to vote to incorporate Miami as a city. It then had 90 residents. Today the Miami metro area has over 6.7 million residents.
There was really just one reason South Florida remained so unpleasant and so empty for so long: water. The region was simply too soggy and swampy for development. Its low-lying flatlands were too vulnerable to storms and floods. As a colorful governor with the colorful name of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward put it: “Water is the common enemy of the people of Florida.” So in the 20th century, Florida declared war on its common enemy, vowing to subdue Mother Nature, eventually making vast swaths of floodplains safe for the president to build golf courses and Vanilla Ice to flip houses and my kids to grow up in the sunshine. Water control—even more than air conditioning or bug spray or Social Security—enabled the spectacular growth of South Florida. It’s a pretty awesome place to live, now that so much of its swamp has been drained, much better than Boston or Brooklyn in the winter, and, for the obvious economic and political reasons, much better than Havana or Caracas all year long.
But Mother Nature still gets her say. Water control has ravaged the globally beloved Everglades and the rest of the South Florida ecosystem in ways that imperil our way of life as well as the local flora and fauna. And sometimes, as we’re about to be reminded, water can’t be controlled. Hurricanes routinely tore through South Florida even before hundreds of gleaming skyscrapers and thousands of red-roof subdivisions sprouted in their path. Our collective willingness not to dwell on that ugly inevitability has also enabled the region’s spectacular growth.
...In 1926, a few weeks after the Miami Herald urged its readers not to worry about hurricanes because “there is more risk to life from venturing across a busy street,” a Category 4 storm flattened Miami, killing 400 and abruptly ending the coastal boom.Then in 1928, another Category 4 storm blasted Lake Okeechobee through its flimsy dike, killing 2,500 and abruptly ending the Everglades boom. It was the second-deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, and afterward Florida’s attorney general testified before Congress that much of the southern half of his state might be unsuited to human habitation: “I’ve heard it advocated that what the people ought to do is build a wall down there and keep the military there to keep people from coming in.”
Needless to say, nobody built a wall. But America finally did get serious about draining the swamp. The Army Corps of Engineers, the shock troops in the nation’s war on Mother Nature, built the most elaborate water management system of its day, 2,000 miles of levees and canals along with pumps so powerful some of the engines would have to be cannibalized from nuclear submarines. The engineers aimed to seize control of just about every drop of water that falls on South Florida, whisking it out to sea to prevent flooding in the flatlands. They made it possible for Americans to farm 400,000 acres of sugar fields in the northern Everglades, to visit Disney World at the headwaters of the Everglades, to drive on the Palmetto and Sawgrass Expressways where palmettos and sawgrass used to be. They made South Florida safe for a long boom that has occasionally paused but has never really stopped, bringing 8 million people to the Everglades watershed, pushing the state’s population from 27th in the nation before World War II to third in the nation today.
The problem, like most problems in South Florida, is a water problem. Half the Everglades has been drained or paved for agriculture and development, so in the rainy season, water managers have to dump excess water into estuaries and what’s left of the Everglades. Then it’s no longer available in the dry season, which is why South Florida now faces structural droughts that create wildfires in the Everglades and endanger the region’s drinking water, which happens to sit underneath the Everglades. Meanwhile, the Everglades itself—once reviled as a vile backwater, now revered as an ecological treasure—has all kinds of problems of its own, including 69 endangered species. In 2000, Congress approved the largest environmental restoration project in history to try to resuscitate the Everglades, an unprecedented effort to fix South Florida’s water problems for people and farms as well as nature. But 17 years later, virtually no progress has been made. It’s a real mess.
And they keep coming. Twenty-five years ago, Hurricane Andrew ripped through Miami’s southern exurbs, but the homes destroyed were quickly replaced, and most of us who live here now weren’t here then. So we weren’t really ready for Irma, even though at some level we knew it was possible. It’s conceivable that Irma will finally shut down our insatiable growth machine, but I wouldn’t bet on that. Our inclination towards collective amnesia is just too strong.
The thing is, it’s really nice here, except when it isn’t....