What Florida Can Teach Us

by Iden Sinai | 10/27/05 5:00am

As I am a proud, native Floridian, there is one thing that has irritated me to the point of exasperation recently, and I will use this column to address it. This past week Hurricane Wilma tore through southern Florida, causing damage that seemed minor in comparison with past storms but that was significant enough to leave more than six million Floridians without power in its wake. For a couple of days -- although few on campus probably noticed because the hurricane neatly coincided with Homecoming weekend -- the media swarmed over Florida, bracing for the next Katrina, unabashedly eager with anticipation.

Well, a funny thing happened. Wilma caused floods, power outages, and devastating winds, but there was no looting, no raping, no pillaging and no civil disorder. In fact, CNN was again covering the 17th Street Canal and its levee in New Orleans on Tuesday night. They remained relatively silent on the subject of the damage done in Florida.

Reporters and analysts on every channel immediately began to look for the reason last weekend's occurrences were nowhere near as calamitous as what had been anticipated. Well, that statement is not entirely true.

Because of Hurricane Wilma, the Hurricanes-Yellow Jackets game was ironically postponed. Even more importantly, the Dolphins-Chiefs game was pushed up to Friday night instead of Sunday afternoon, and without the additional two days to recover from injury, Jason Taylor played with a sore foot and Junior Seau was not able to play at all, leading to yet another emotionally crippling Dolphins defeat. So, there were some problems, but I should probably keep them in perspective.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this rather orderly aftermath of the natural disaster is that the state and local governments in Florida must have learned the lesson so painfully demonstrated by the inadequate reaction to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana.

The question, "What have you learned from Katrina?" has been repeated ad nauseam -- to residents, mayors, meteorologists and to Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who appeared to be more frustrated with the inanity of some air-headed reporters than he did with coordinating the relief effort.

Despite the fact that this conclusion was almost universally adopted among talking heads, this conclusion is wrong. There are two glaring problems with its logic, the first and most obvious being that Wilma, despite reaching Mother-of-All-Disasters status when it slammed into Mexico, had weakened to a Category 3 before it made landfall in the U.S. The fact that this key difference was overlooked can be chalked up to journalistic laziness.

The other major flaw with the conclusion's line of reasoning is this: Florida did not and still does not need to learn from the abysmal failures of the officials in both New Orleans and in Louisiana as a whole; if anything, the catastrophe that happened as a result of Katrina would have been significantly alleviated had Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin studied the Floridian preparation for and response to hurricanes and tropical storms.

As of this writing, with a couple of weeks left in the 2005 hurricane season, Florida has been hit by 12 hurricanes and tropical storms in the past 15 months. Each time, the state was prepared, and each time, the reconstruction proceeded without significant logistical problems or gross civil disorder. Why has no one taken the time to study the effective and efficient natural disaster preparation and response that Florida seems to be perfecting with each passing storm?

I suppose that a great deal of this inattention springs from the coverage that the Sunshine State receives. Since nothing of note occurs when a hurricane hits, it is hardly newsworthy. The promptness and effectiveness of the response are not noted simply because such a topic is boring. There are no photos to be taken of people screaming angrily because there was no water available for purchase before the storm. Buildings do not crumble because construction codes were modified over a decade ago after Hurricane Andrew, so new homes and businesses, with the notable exception of mobile homes, can withstand winds of 120 miles per hour and sustain only cosmetic damage.

Jeb noted that Florida learned how to prepare for hurricanes after Andrew in 1992, not necessarily Katrina -- but no media outlet made this clear to the public.

But I think there is yet another reason as to why Florida's disaster response seems to be the best-kept secret this side of the Suwanee. Floridians are seen, nationally, as intellectual lightweights who spend most of their time at theme parks or the beach. This perception was perhaps started by the opening of that Mecca of child-oriented frivolity, Walt Disney World, and apparently confirmed by the 2000 presidential election.

This stereotype is patently false. While I can offer no defense of Disney World and challenge anyone to say that he or she openly hates the sun and the beach, I would like to point out that most of those that had difficulty with the "butterfly ballot" in 2000 were carpetbagging Yankee retirees in West Palm Beach, and not native Floridians. Personally, I would not mind one bit if condescending snowbirds made travel arrangements elsewhere this winter; the traffic while I am home for Christmas will be a little less congested.

What this stereotype obscures is this simple fact: Florida is leading the United States, and by extension the rest of the world, in natural disaster preparation and reconstruction. Such advances are more relevant now than ever before. With floods in New Hampshire, dams nearly bursting in Massachusetts, and hurricanes in other states on the Gulf Coast, maybe it is time for people to stop unfairly cracking wise about Florida's electoral capabilities and instead listen attentively to her as we continue to deal with Nature's wrath.

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