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Sunday, Nov 18, 2018
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Column: Hurricanes and the Florida dream

Andrew, Charley, Donna, Elena, Frances, Hermine, Irma, Ivan, Jeanne and Michael - the list conjures up long-lost chapters of the Old Testament. But to many Floridians, the names resonate like a modern Book of Lamentations.

Mayans named the storms that roiled the tropical waters after the god of birth and destruction, el Huracán. Tempestuous winds and currents created new passes, bisected islands and occasionally swept away Red Tide.

Hurricanes also engage Floridians to act like neighbors. Hurricanes teach lessons about community and compassion.

Hurricanes may be natural disasters, but they are also political events. It was not always so. Historically, hurricanes were local events. Victims relied upon local friends and charities, not Washington, D.C.

"Hurricanes come in two waves," observed the New York Times columnist David Brooks. "First come the rainstorms," and then comes "the human storm." He adds, "Floods are also civic examinations."

The turning point was the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. Destitute World War I veterans had been provided jobs building a new highway. Many lived on railway cars between Marathon and Islamorada. When one on the century's most ferocious storms savaged the Keys, hundreds died when the cars washed out to sea. Others were sandblasted to death. "Who murdered the vets?" asked Ernest Hemingway in The New Masses. It was common sense, he charged, "that wealthy people, yachtsmen, fishermen, such as Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt do not come to the Florida Keys in hurricane months."

Fortunately for President Roosevelt, re-election was more than a year away. Other presidents would not be as lucky or politically savvy.

The same impulses that empowered the modern presidency also created the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Equally significant, presidents and governors must play the role of national griever, healer and provider.

The case study for leadership occurred in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew barreled through southeast Florida. Overwhelmed, Miami-Dade County's emergency operations director appealed to Washington on national television, pleading, "Where the hell is the cavalry on this one?" Presidential re-election candidate George H.W. Bush paid dearly for his hesitation and his failure to visit Homestead.

President Bush's sons understood the urgency of the crisis when Hurricane Charley approached Punta Gorda in 2004, the first of four tempests in six weeks. It also happened to be a presidential election year. President George H. Bush signed a $7.1 billion hurricane aid package. He also visited the soggy Sunshine State on five separate occasions in August and September. Democratic challenger John Kerry, not wishing to be a distraction, deferred from campaigning in Florida; instead, he asked his campaign workers to assist in the recovery efforts.

Brother Jeb Bush had arrived in Miami in the 1980s, experiencing a cram-session in Hurricanes 101, taught by Andrew. Re-elected as governor in 2002, Bush's resolve was tested in 2004, remembered as "the year of four hurricanes." A policy wonk, Bush could appear cold and analytical, but received high marks for his efforts as the "hurricane governor." A whirling chief executive, he seemed genuinely concerned, passing out bottles of water, holding bilingual press conferences and comforting migrant workers who had lost their mobile homes.

Jeb later reflected, "These hurricanes kind of etched my soul in many ways."

A blue tarpaulin state in September, Florida became a red state in November, when George W. Bush won re-election as president.

President George W. Bush, who so adroitly responded to Florida's storm-tossed needs, utterly failed in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. NBC's Chuck Todd famously commented, "The initial response from federal officials leaves the impression that they can't walk and chew gum at the same time." Katrina proved to be an environmental and political disaster.

Washington, D.C., is inextricably linked to Floridians' lives. Floridians living on gulf islands, retirement communities or rural hamlets, all look to Washington for disaster and beach renourishment funding. Governments could, of course, prohibit home construction along coastal communities, but powerful interests demand the freedom to build, along with federally subsidized insurance as a hedge against natural disasters. Of course, there is nothing "natural" about erecting beachfront homes on barrier islands.

Debates over costs, blame and responsibilities will rage long after the hurricanes. There is only one thing more certain than future hurricanes, and that is more development along sensitive ecosystems will occur.

Upcoming November elections teeter upon how candidates respond to the emotional and environmental crises of 2018. My advice to the candidates is simple. Always remember that hurricanes accentuate the bumper-sticker message: "Nature Bats Last!"

Gary R. Mormino, professor emeritus of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is finishing a book on "Florida: 2000-2012," from which this article is derived.

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