The art of Florida

Earlier this year I spent several weeks looking at Florida cities that are embracing the arts. My series was published in the spring issue of FORUM, the publication of the Florida Humanities Council. By way of editorial comment, all of this local level vitality has been going on while the Florida Legislature has cut funding for the arts to practically nothing.

In Miami above all.

The waiting game

Listen, if you think waiting for Dorian to make up its mind was a tedious exercise in quiet desperation, try waiting for our politicians to do something about Florida’s other warm water crisis.

The same climate change-driven conditions that are conspiring to make hurricanes slower, more destructive and less predictable are also fueling the explosive growth of toxic algae in our lakes and rivers and red tides in our coastal waters.

“Florida waters are in trouble,” warns the Florida Conservation Coalition. “Across the state, point and non-point source pollution plague the quality of our rivers, springs, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters, and have created ecological, economic and health crises.”

And here’s the thing. Hurricanes may be here today and gone tomorrow. But our blue-green algae and red tide problems won’t blow away. They will only to get worse thanks to our failure to exercise stewardship over our most precious natural resource, the life-giving waters around us.

We know why this is happening. It’s neither an act of God nor the fickle finger of nature.

Let us count just some of the ways we have been turning our waters into algae factories.

More than a billion gallons of wastewater discharged into Tampa Bay in just four years.

South Florida, unable to handle its own sewage sludge, has been trucking it north, ostensibly to “fertilize” farmlands, but ultimately to turn the St. Johns River green.

The Big Ag retention basin formerly known as Lake Okeechobee continues to spew its filth west into the Caloosahatchee River and east into the St. Lucy.

The Indian River Lagoon is suffering the death of a thousand point sources – septic tanks, stormwater runoff, lawn fertilizer overuse and more.

When we hear the word “infrastructure,” we are conditioned to think roads and highways. But Florida’s algae crisis is very much a result of our failure to modernize sewage treatment systems, replace aging septic tanks, insist on more responsible agriculture practices and otherwise invest in water quality infrastructure.

Under the flimsy excuse of providing better hurricane evacuation routes Florida will spend billions for new toll highways which will only further abet the runaway growth and over development that is killing Florida’s environmental integrity.

But where is the funding to stop St. Petersburg from dumping a couple million gallons of poorly treated wastewater into the aquifer? Or to keep biosolids out of the St. Johns?

“Upgrading wastewater utilities and replacing or upgrading septic tanks in areas already impaired by excessive nutrient pollution will be an expensive but necessary undertaking for current and future generations of Floridians,” cautions the FCC.

How expensive. The coalition argues that Florida requires a sustained $1 billion to $2 billion a year investment in water quality infrastructure. That would mean septic tank replacement, upgrading aging sewage treatment facilities, imposing new “best management practices” on dairy and agricultural operations, cracking down on Florida’s green lawn fetish…for a start.

“This has been frustrating I know for a lot of people because it seems like we’ve been talking about this a long time,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said the other day, urging Floridians not to succumb to complacency while waiting for Dorian to move on.

Talk about complacency! Florida has been stewing in its own toxic juices for a long time and we’re still just talking about it.

Billions for toll roads and pennies for clean water?

The time for talk is over, Governor, and a new legislative session is near. We need less talk and more action.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.)

What’s eating Florida?

For a long time I’ve been arguing that our official state motto ought to be: Florida: Whatever you don’t eat will eat you.”

Course I was just talking about Gators, mosquitos and no-see-ums (oh my). But nature has a more lethal sense of humor than any mere mortal.

So now we’re talking about flesh eating bacteria. And it’s no laughing matter.

Of late there have been a handful of cases on southwest Florida beaches. A 77-year old woman died of it. A couple of other cases were successfully treated. Amy Barnes, 45, survived thanks to four weeks of antibiotics. “I want people to be aware of this stuff because it’s real and it will kill you,” she told reporters. “It will eat you up before you even get a chance.”

To be sure these cases are extremely rare. So rare that state health officials don’t even bother to keep track of them. (Rather like the Mayor of Amity, in “Jaws,” didn’t want to make too much of shark bites for fear of scaring off the tourists.)

But now the secret’s out thanks to press coverage. And you have to wonder how it will affect attendance at Florida’s beaches during this long, hot, fetid summer. 

And it’s not only the odd case of Necrotizing fasciitis that ought to worry virtually anyone who goes to the beach or makes a living catering to sun worshipers. Between red tides, blue green algae and beach closures due to high bacteria content (poop in the water), Florida has been getting so much bad press of late that tourism officials in California have to be smiling. 

Algae Blooms. Iguanas heading north. That’s climate change.” That Tampa Bay Times editorial neatly summarizes the sodden mess we are all making of our once pristine peninsular paradise. “Whether it’s leaky septic tanks, runoff from our lawns or too much farm waste flowing into waterways, we’ve created conditions ripe for algae to take hold. And don’t forget that a 2014 Climate Assessment Report predicted more blooms in Florida as the globe warms.”

Oh, and about those big exotic lizards that are making themselves to home in South Florida? The iguanas are slowly migrating north, and they’ve gotten so bothersome that the state wants Floridians to start killing them off. 

“Homeowners do not need a permit to kill iguanas on their own property, and the FWC encourages homeowners to kill green iguanas on their own property whenever possible,” says a Fish and Wildlife Commission press release. 

In a heavily armed state like ours, declaring open season on these south of the border exotics should make for some interesting misadventures. I can see the headlines now: “Florida man nails six iguanas with assault rifle in crowded mall parking lot”.

But I digress. 

The point is that we are slowly turning our Florida Eden into a polluted, overcrowded, dangerous and miserable hellhole. In this brave new world, a python can strangle a baby in its crib. Boa constrictors are eating the gators in the Glades. Florida mosquitos can make you scratch and itch, but they can also pass on chikungunya fever, dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever, and Rift Valley fever.

And don’t even get me started on the ever-growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Just another day in paradise. 

The blue-green algae mess has gotten so bad that even our “anything for business” politicians have been forced to take notice. The Legislature threw some money at clean-up this session, but did nothing to stop pollution at its source. That would have been bad for “bidness,” not to mention their campaign contributions. Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis has created a Blue Green Algae Task Force, so he’ll be kicking that can down the road for a while. 

But while we’re waiting, DeSantis and lawmakers have launched a new era of super highway construction, are continuing to gut Florida’s growth management laws and have otherwise done all they can to ensure that Florida’s despoliation will continue apace.

I hate to sound cynical about all this, but the fact is that we could see this coming for a long time. For at least the past two decades politicians have been sacrificing our natural environment so as to accommodate big developers, big ag, big sugar and other generous special interest campaign donors. And we Florida voters have done nothing but reward them with reelection and advancement to higher office (hello Sen. Rick Scott).

No, the politicians haven’t sold us out. We did it to ourselves by not throwing the rascals out. And if there is anything like a  “green wave” constituency out there to set things right, it’s moving slower than an iguana in a Florida cold snap. 

So what’s eating you Florida? The list is long and growing, but the short answer is all too painfully obvious.

We are.

You have the right to park

Once more I must rise to the defense of our woefully misunderstood public servants in the Florida Legislature.

Of late lawmakers have been taking heat, and even threatened with legal action, over a bill – still awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature at this writing – requiring a “sufficient” amount of parking be available at early voting sites. 

What’s wrong with that? Well you might ask. Listen, if we don’t take the phrase “motor voter” literally as well as seriously here in autoAmerica then where? What can possibly be more patriotic than our collective fidelity to liberty, equality and parking? 

But, no, cynics accuse legislators of harboring ill motives in their insistence on parking. This is just a sneaky ploy to avoid having to put early voting sites on college and university campuses. Because – gasp! – student voters are presumed more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. 

And this kind of thing can quickly get out of hand. At the University of Florida alone nearly 8,000 people voted early in 2018. This after UF students successfully sued the state in federal court to have early voting on campus. 

Follow the conspiracy theory here folks: Anybody whose ever tried to drive onto a college campus knows that parking is a nightmare. Permits are almost always required. Faculty and administrators gobble up all the spaces. Campus cops toss out tickets like confetti at a homecoming parade. 

“Location is one thing that you’re looking at. But the other thing is access. And if there’s no parking, there’s no access for many people,” Republican state senator Dennis Baxley told the Huffington Post.

Reasonable, no? Well, no, counters  Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. She told HuffPost: “This is not about parking. Those students with cars, they can hop in their car and go to an early voting site off campus. This about those students living on campus, who don’t have a car and they want to vote early.”

Suspicious minds. 

But listen, there is nothing more American than minimum parking requirements. In this country you can’t build anything – outhouse, corner bar, duplex, mom and pop store, shopping center or subdivision – without meeting stringent parking mandates. That’s precisely why American cities, towns, commercial centers and suburbs have the look and feel of…well, gigantic used car lots. 

These things don’t happen by accident you know. 

Parking minimums are the strange, out-dated, and totally unscientific law that’s probably languishing in your city’s zoning code,” asserts “They sound dull (and they are) but they’re incredibly important because they have dramatically shaped our cities in a detrimental manner.”

Yeah, not to put too fine a point on it, but we have for decades been sacrificing the look, feel and very function of our civilization for the convenience of people in cars.

And, really, what’s more fundamental to American civilization than the right to vote? And is that right truly sacrosanct if we can’t park really really close to a ballot booth?

No, if anything, a sufficient parking requirement doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

If we’re serous about universal access we need to insist that all voting be conducted at fast food restaurants, parking garages, gas stations, car washes, drive-up banks, drive-through liquor and beer barns – really at any structure specifically designed to allow patriotic autoAmericans to exercise their franchise without having to leave the sanctuary of their vehicles. 

Listen, if McDonalds can serve billions, why can’t supervisors of elections?

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.)


Trump’s man in Florida

Very early on in my Navy stint I signed a petition.

Yeah, I know. But it was the sixties and my generation was going to change the world. Cue Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

I don’t even remember what we were seeking redress for. I do remember my Come To Jesus meeting with a kindly chief bosuns mate who gently explained that when the Navy wanted my opinion they’d beat it out of me.

Or words to that effect. 

Fine, the military isn’t a democracy. But that’s pretty much the same message Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered when he signed legislation making it harder, if not impossible, to get citizen-initiated amendments to the Florida constitution on the ballot.

Memo to Floridians: When we want your opinion we’ll tell your elected representative what it is.

Unless your elected representative is a Democrat, in which case keep your lame opinions to yourself.

So much for our new breath-of-fresh-air chief executive. 

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 

Listen, the elected elite in Tallahassee hate it when the peons try to tell them what to do via amendment initiative. And for the most part when that happens they try their best to ignore whatever the mandate might be.

Polluter Pays? Nah, Big Sugar buys too many politicians to have to spend even more money saving the Everglades.

The conservation land and water amendment? They laughed it off.

Let former felons vote? Not unless they pay through the nose first.

Fair districts? Well, the Legislature tried to ignore it but for once the courts insisted. 

Which is the real reason for this new move to criminalize the petition gathering process. 

The big Florida Republican priority right now is to deliver the state to Donald Trump next year. 

That should be easy, except that Trump steps on his own tongue so much that he makes everything harder than it ought to be. 

The last thing the party wants to see is Trump’s name on the same ballot as a constitutional amendment to ban assault weapons. That might turn out altogether the wrong sort of voter.

The assault weapons ban has already collected more than 100,000 signatures, but it needs 766,200 valid names to get on the ballot. 

“I think it’s very unfortunate that they want to muzzle Florida citizens from conducting democracy and giving us a voice,” Gail Schwartz, chair of the initiative drive, told Florida Phoenix. “It is going to make things harder and it is going to make things more expensive…”

Which is pretty much the point. DeSantis rode into the governor’s office on Trump’s blessing, and now he’s bound to return the favor. 

And it’s not just an assault weapons ban that worries the elites. Other petition initiatives hovering over the 2020 ballot propose to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid coverage for the poor, open up primary elections to all voters (horrors!) and require background checks for firearms purchases.

The peasants are revolting! Time to crack the whip.

Florida has been under one-party rule for more than 20 years. During that time the reds in power have done everything possible to insulate themselves against demographic shifts that might give the blues some wiggle room. Voter purges? Sure. Voting registration barriers? Why not? Gerrymandering? As long as they could get away with it. And now weaponizing the constitution against the reformers in the cheap seats. 

Ain’t democracy wonderful?

“A direct democracy is for other places,” Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, famously said this past session, “not, namely, the United States or the state of Florida,” 

Oh, right, I forgot.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

Time for a managed retreat

We did not save the best for last on our Forgotten Coast Tour. 

In fact, on the very first day of Bike Florida’s most popular small group tour our riders were treated to something truly extraordinary. Call it a blast from the past.

Leaving Port St. Joe cyclists headed west on U.S. 98. On their left the aqua blue Gulf of Mexico glistened in the sun, and no wall-to-wall condos blocked that extraordinary view. No cookie-cutter chain restaurants. No glass towers blotting out the sky, housing northern retirees determined to spend their final years perched on the edge of paradise. 

Cycling past the quirky El Governor Hotel, the Crab Shack, Toucans and the Grey Whale. Stopping for a break at the Visitors Center, next to the Giant Chair. 

Mexico Beach in all its retro glory. Looking still as though it had been ripped from the pages of a 1960s-era travel guide.

Last year we had to cancel our tour because Hurricane Michael got there first, leaving much of the Forgotten Coast disheveled and almost all of Mexico Beach in ruins. And today, eight months later, Mexico Beach is still mostly rubble. Many of its residents continue to live in wretched conditions as they wait for vindictive members of Congress to stop playing games with a long delayed disaster relief bill. 

Politicians from the President on down have promised to put things back the way they were. But you really can’t put Mexico Beach back the way it was. When rebuilding begins in earnest, the ubiquitous condos and towers and cookie cutter chains will inevitably replace the modest beach houses and mom-and-pop motels that gave the town its charm. 

Which begs the larger question: Even if we could put Mexico Beach back the way it was, should we?

Given what we know about the inevitability of sea level rise. About climate change generating ever more extreme hurricanes. About the corrosive march of coastal erosion despite our best efforts to armor against it.

Not to mention the spiraling fiscal liability of supporting a national flood insurance program that pays to rebuild in areas that have flooded before and will certainly do so again. 

“Across the nation, tens of billions of tax dollars have been spent on subsidizing coastal reconstruction in the aftermath of storms, usually with little consideration of whether it actually makes sense to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas,” noted the New York Times in 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. 

Seven years and several hurricanes later, we’re still giving scant consideration to whether it makes sense to rebuild vulnerable communities like Mexico Beach. 

Which is not to say that disaster victims should be abandoned. A saner policy would make displaced residents whole again by giving them the means to rebuild – just not in the same place. In return for that compensation, coastal and flood plane properties would revert to conservation, never to be built upon again. 

A so-called “managed retreat” policy would, over time, not only move residents inland and out of harm’s way, but also enable coastal areas to “heal themselves,” as it were. Construction being a main cause of coastal erosion 

“Managed or planned retreat…allows the shoreline to advance inward unimpeded,” explains As the shore erodes, buildings and other infrastructure are either demolished or relocated inland.”

Mexico Beach was a true Florida treasure. But we know from bitter experience that it is possible to love our Florida treasures to death. 

Better to let it go and fondly remember Mexico Beach the way it was. 

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and one-time executive director of Bike Florida. This column was published in The Sun on June, 2, 2019.)

Hurricanes and asphalt

Donna put a palm tree in my room.

No, not my sister Donna. Hurricane Donna. 

That was in 1960. I was 12 years old. We were living in Hollywood, which happened to be in Donna’s direct line of fire on its way from Cuba to New York. 

The palm tree in question used to live in our side yard. But sometime during that long, windy, scary night Donna broke it off like a matchstick and propelled it through our roof and into my bedroom. 

I wasn’t there. We had already evacuated to our landlord’s house – bigger, newer and presumably more tempest resistant than our rental.

I can only imagine how that night might have turned out if we South Floridians had been encouraged to pile into our 1950s-era vehicles and make tracks en masse for the Georgia border before Donna could catch us. 

Of course, that was before we had the benefit of a network of modern interstates  – which in turn brought millions of additional people to Florida, facilitated endless sprawl development, and thereby put even more people in harm’s way during hurricane season. Our Donna-damaged home in was just a few blocks away from where I-95 was even then under construction.

I only bring this up to recall that there was a time when hurricane evacuation in Florida meant getting people away from the coast or out of unsafe housing and maybe moving them inland a few miles to wait out the storm. If we hadn’t been in our landlord’s house we might have ended up in a school auditorium, a church or some other community storm shelter.

But, really, that’s so last century. 

Now the preferred method of evacuation seems to be scaring residents into their cars by the hundreds of thousands and stampeding them north. But last time we tried such a mass exodus from our narrow peninsula, last year during Hurricane Irma, it backed up traffic for miles and left uncounted hurricane refugees stranded on interstate highways in the middle of nowhere with neither fuel, shelter or succor.

Fortunately, Irma turned out to be not as destructive as anticipated. When Texas went the mass evacuation route, in 2005 ahead of Rita, thousands of people ran out of gas on the interstate and two dozen of them died.

One big problem with mass evacuations is the panic ripple effect. Of the nearly 7 million Floridians who took to their cars to escape Irma, only about half of them actually lived in designated evacuation zones. The rest presumably scared themselves into running. 

So how do we solve the problems inherent in mass evacuations? By reverting to the old tried and true model of designating safe, community-based hardened shelters?

Nah. Clearly we need to build additional traffic lanes so as to better disperse the flood of ‘cane refugees and thus more efficiently funnel them north. Another eight lanes ought to do the trick. Or maybe 10 lanes or 12 or 16…..

Yeah, more asphalt is just the ticket. 

Hence the multi-billion dollar plan recently approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis to run new extensions of Florida Turnpike toll roads through virgin landscapes along the western side of our narrow peninsula. 

Backers of the expansion repeatedly cited the need to provide more evacuation routes as justification. And, as a side benefit, if that means opening up hundreds of thousands of currently underutilized rural lands to new suburban and exurban development opportunities, then so much the better. What’s good for business – for the land speculators and developers – is good for Florida, right?

Of course, opening up that much new land for sprawl development will eventually mean that millions more Floridians may need to be stampeded to Georgia and points north every time a “Big One” looms on the horizon. Then, presumably, the politicians will be able to justify building even more lanes of asphalt at a cost of additional billions of dollars.

It is a vicious cycle that will never end. Good news for the land speculators and developers. Bad news for taxpayers and future hurricane victims.