In the weeks before Irma—my first real taste of a Florida hurricane—I imagined being frozen in place somewhere over the Atlantic, watching the clouds blot out the sky and the sea boil beneath the wind. Each day heightened the tension, as talk turned to evacuation plans and bottled water vanished from supermarket shelves. Irma’s path wobbled back and forth from coast to coast, but that didn’t matter; the storm was already as wide as the entire state. In the event, the deluge amounted to one destructive night of rocking trees and pounding rain, punctuated by the occasional sparkle of a blown transformer. Some awoke to total annihilation, but many crept safely from their hideaways to wait for the power to come back on. So spins the roulette wheel, every season.
The scale of a hurricane response is a good heuristic for Florida’s terminally unflappable character. You cannot prevent a hurricane, and on a long, low-lying peninsula precautionary measures are limited. The most transient of Floridians, those one degree more permanent than spring breakers, flee at the first sign of trouble, but if you’re here for anything beyond a long vacation it simply doesn’t make sense to be so flighty. We stock up on canned goods, build vast caches of alcohol, and hunker down. This is our kneejerk reaction to crisis.
When, in March, coronavirus first rumbled into the public conversation, Florida responded in the manner of Florida. There were scattered cases across the state, all seemingly explicable by unlucky international travel and cramped cruise ships. Community spread was considered out of the question; the state government repeatedly assured us that no cases had slipped in unnoticed.
In South Florida, when the outbreak began, the plush abundance of everyday life instantly gave way to the markers of an encroaching storm, with stocks of water and toilet paper carved out of the shelves in local stores. A friend, observing this uncanny scene, remarked that Floridians only know how to be scared of one thing. But in every other theater of Floridian life things chugged along as usual, and the world was soon scandalized by photos of packed beaches at the height of spring break.
Much has been written about Florida’s response to the virus, but I think too much of it channels associations with “Florida Man,” the deranged, degraded and even criminal Floridian of Onion fame. (Florida’s unusually rapid and transparent publication of crime records is likely responsible for the spectacle.) The typical “Florida Man” headline is often followed by a kind of softcore poverty porn. This state of affairs prepared the ground for virus-related coverage uncritically circulating the hashtag #FloridaMorons.
The shambolic response of state government places immense, undue strain on the most exposed essential workers, but there’s some evidence that the average Floridan effectively adopted social distancing before official measures were implemented. Though nightmare beach scenes from March were rightfully condemned you’d be hard pressed to find a Floridian amongst the horde of spring breakers. The ongoing breakdowns in public health procedure are deeply discouraging, yet Florida is hardly an outlier.
The unsung virtue of Florida is humility. Home to all the worst American excesses, Florida is grimly familiar with the deficiencies that define this country. I make no defense of Florida’s governor, the bumbling Ron DeSantis, nor of those in charge of the state’s governing organs, who dragged their feet and openly denied the reality of community spread, in a state with the second-highest concentration of residents over 65 in the nation. So far Florida appears to have defied the direst predictions, though accurate information on the spread of COVID-19 here has not been easy to come by.
The sunset fantasia that is Florida is well equipped for the world remade by coronavirus. The sprawl of air-conditioned boxes that makes up most of Florida’s towns and cities is conducive to social distancing. And while the state’s inability to coordinate a rapid, organized response was unsurprising, so too was the collective shrug that characterized the average Floridian’s shuffle into quarantine. Despite the libertine, devil-may-care attitude most associated with the Floridian psyche, it is in the increasingly familiar face of crisis that Florida most resembles anything like a community.
Hunkering down alongside never-before-seen neighbors, midnight flights to friends’ parents’ highground houses, lifelong Floridians flash through such crises every hurricane season, which later fade into the humdrum of everyday life. A deep loneliness clings to Florida, expressed in a perverse longing for the thrill of a storm, of a collective, unifying fear. That this mood continues now, albeit at a distance of six feet, is a testament to how quickly the fragmentation and fragility of Florida transform into a kind of kinship.
But the present crisis is beyond the scale of a hurricane, and a still greater threat lurks below the horizon.
Just a few days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the Florida Department of Health released a map. The virus was shown in blue, deeper and darker for the counties with the highest rates of infection. A casual observer might have mistaken it for another forecast of Florida’s future. Miami chipped away to the everglades, Tampa absorbed by an encroaching gulf, and Orlando swallowed up by lakes, all eroding against a great grey sea. The depths of these swelling blues could easily have been projecting the homes lost to sea level rise, or precarious lives displaced by the slow boil of climbing temperatures. Despite all appeals to fairness the COVID-19 crisis has done nothing to halt the climate crisis. In a painful twist, the reflective effect of airborne pollution decreases seasonal warming.
Before the belated lockdown orders in Florida took effect, the south of the state had smashed temperature records and NOAA had already announced an unusually active hurricane season. With coronavirus wreaking havoc around the world and the threat of a second wave anticipated in the fall, the stage is set for a truly unimaginable catastrophe.
Who can even say what Florida will look like by the time the first hardballs are pitched off the Atlantic? Despite the imminent end of the stay-at-home order (excepting South Florida, for now), there’s good reason to believe the state’s biggest brokers of tourism have no interest in reopening, seeing as they can only expect to run at a massive loss. With revenue frozen at every level, what will become of Florida?
In March 1845, citizens of Tallahassee, Florida’s newly minted capital, presented the governor with the new and deeply weird state flag, on which paired boxes appear atop a red, white, and green tricolor. The left box contains a compressed American flag; in the box facing right, there is a banner reading “Let Us Alone.” Some may see a selfish message in Florida’s original slogan, but I see a plea for esprit de corps. Let us alone. Let us care for our elderly neighbors, let us stuff tourists with overpriced shrimp, let us make something bizarre and beautiful out of this wonderful barge of sandstone. I know the motto probably originated in nothing more than bloodsoaked colonial greed. Florida knows solidarity only in that sudden surge of an oncoming hurricane. And for most of us, those lucky enough to escape the destruction of landfall, life returns to lonely normalcy as soon as the AC switches back on.