The spinx and the water

ST. PETERSBURG: This is a city of grand palaces and colorful onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches, of giant mosques and fortresses and spacious parks and even a sad, still-functioning Cold War-era brick-and-barbed wire prison. 

And it is a city of monuments: Bronze and stone tributes to tsars and saints and heroes and sinners. 

Consider the twin sphinxes that stand sentinel over the wide, blue Neva River. Mirror image studies of grace and torment. Each twin’s face split down the middle – one side reflecting a haunting beauty, the other a grim, skeletal mortality.

“These are my favorite statues because they represent the soul of my city,” Victor, the young bicycle guide we hired to show us Russia’s grand city of 6 million people, said. “We have so much beauty, and we have seen so much suffering.” 

The bloody reign of the tsars. The brutal Nazi siege that could not bring St. Petersburg to its knees. Seven decades of grim Soviet rule.

And the surging water. Always the water. 

Slayer of tens of thousands over the city’s 300-year history, flooding has been St. Petersburg’s most constant tormentor since Peter The Great decided – against the advice of just about everybody who knew the terrain – to build his grand capital in the Neva’s low, swampy delta. 

There is a reason they call St. Petersburg the Venice of the North. The river dissects the city with surgical precision, and along its banks are a network of side canals that these days teem with excursion boats. 

Those canals built, not to enchant tourists, but to get rid of unwanted water. 

Floods happen with predictable regularity due to prevailing winds that send Baltic Sea ice melt surging into the city. One flood in 1824 alone killed as many as 10,000. More than 300 floods have swept over the city since its founding in 1703. 

In his epic poem “The Bronze Horseman,” Alexander Pushkin writes of water that “seethes up from below, manifesting itself in uncontrolled passion, illness, and violence. It rebels against order and tradition.” 

Rather like Harvey rebelled against Huston. 

Like St. Petersburg, Houston sprouted on shallow, swampy lands that should never have been selected to host a city in the first place. Houston grew and drained and dredged and filled and sprawled with no rational planning and little heed for the world’s single most destructive force – water. 

Harvey wasn’t Houston’s first flood, only its deadliest. Like St. Petersburg it has suffered the curse of excess water repeatedly.

Which is not to say these two great cities are sphinx-like mirror images. 

Beginning in 1979 Russia began construction of an elaborate series of 11 dams and related  flood-control structures to protect St. Petersburg. Work was halted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but began again in 2005 under Vladimir Putin. 

Finally completed in 2011, St. Petersburg’s network of dams, tunnels, discharge sluices and flood gates have since been credited with helping the city survive at least two serious storm events without sustaining major damage. 

Total cost for the project: An estimated $385 billion in U.S. dollars. 

Meanwhile, after the “Tax Day Flood” of 2016 that killed 16 people, Houston asked Congress for a modest $311 million for flood mitigation. 

Congress couldn’t be bothered. Tax cuts these days being deemed a better investment strategy than life-saving infrastructure.

Now Congress must try to figure out how to pay down at least some of the estimated $190 billion in damages Harvey visited on Texas. 

Nobody in D.C. wants to come right out and admit it, but as climate change aggravates both the frequency and intensity of killer storms, we will be forced to choose between two mitigation strategies. 

One is a gradual retreat from the coast, surrendering cities like Houston and Miami and New Orleans to the elements and relocating their populations ever inland. 

The other is to follow the Dutch, Russians and others who that have decided that great cities like London, Venice, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg are worth the not inconsiderable infrastructure costs necessary to sustain them. 

Call it America’s own twin sphinx dilemma. 

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in the Sun in August 2017.)

Everywhere a sign

Signs, signs everywhere a sign.

Maybe it’s just me but I have a tendency to look for not-so-subtle signs as I wander through AutoAmerica.

For instance, in St. Augustine Beach I noticed that at every pedestrian crossing on Beach Boulevard the city has thoughtfully provided stacks of bright orange flags. The idea being that if you are going to cross the street on foot, better grab a flag so people in automobiles will be able to see you, um, coming.

I’m sure traffic engineers patted themselves on the backs over that one. Keeping our pedestrians safe against all odds, they’d say. 

But that’s the real message here? Those orange flags are very much a sign that people who do not encase themselves in two tons of Detroit iron really don’t belong on the public streets. That they require extraordinary markings just to survive that hostile environment. 

Rather like the old plague ships that had to fly yellow flags.

Everywhere a sign.

At Gainesville High School, where my kids graduated, I see that they have installed a push button system that sets off flashing lights at the pedestrian crosswalk. The better to allow students to get safety across four lanes of highway designed for speedy motor transit. 

Great idea. Oh, but wait.

As if to prove the point that no good deed goes unpunished, the traffic engineers in their infinite wisdom decided that the thick concrete post bearing the life-saving push button ought to be implanted right into the sidewalk, just off-center of the middle.

What’s the sign here? Fine, we’ll give you a break getting across the street. But you’ll pay the price with a partially blocked sidewalk. Tough luck if you happen to be in a wheelchair.

Everywhere a sign.

Speaking of which, I notice that the county just installed a couple of speed trackers along NW 16th Blvd, not far from my home. The speed limit is 40 MPH, and if you are going faster (or slower) than you are so informed in an orange LED digital readout. 

Good idea, because you have to assume that at least some of the drivers who are going faster than 40 will take the hint and show down….at least for a hundred feet or so.

So what’s this sign really saying?

It’s a tacit acknowledgement that four-laned, broad-laned NW 16th has been engineered to near interstate standards, so much so that the natural tendency is to drive faster than the posted limit allows. 

One might reasonably ask why anybody needs to drive 40 mph on an urban street that separates neighborhoods, schools, churches and parks. But that’s an irrelevant question: For all practical purposes you could slap a 30 mph limit on that stroad (look it up) and people would still drive 40-50. Or faster, I’ve seen them do it.

Because fast-moving cars are exactly what NW 16th was designed to facilitate. And it does its job very well.

Orange flags, sidewalk obstructions, electronic slow down alerts. 

The signs are all there. And they all say the same thing.

Here there be autoAmerican dragons. Pilgrims afoot beware.

Voting on the abyss

I was going to tell you that I am seventy years old and this is the most important election in my lifetime. 

I was going to tell you that I voted when Lyndon Johnson was sending young men my age to Vietnam because his Best And Brightest assured him we would Win.

They slaughtered tens of thousands of us.

We slaughtered hundreds of thousands of them.

We didn’t Win.

But this is the most important election in my lifetime.

I was going to tell you that I voted during the Nixon years as that bloody war raged on. But the rage had spread to our own streets, and national guardsmen were shooting young people down on a college campus.

But this is the most important election of my lifetime.

I was going to tell you that I voted when American cities exploded in racial strife and the ghettos seethed with resentment over the the enduring chains of Jim Crow segregation.

But this is the most important election in my lifetime.

I was going to tell you that I voted in the Reagan years, when we trained murderous thugs and overthrew elected governments south of our border so we could “save” their people from communism. 

Want to know what that hapless caravan making its way through Mexico is fleeing? Not communism, but the inevitable fallout from years of U.S.-funded instability.

But this is the most important election in my lifetime.

I voted when we reacted to the deadly attacks of 9-11 by invading a country that had nothing to do with any of it. We went. We’re are still there. We don’t know how to get out. 

Mission Accomplished.

But this is the most important election of my lifetime.

This is the most important election because America is teetering on the abyss. Over the edge is darkness, and once we tumble we may never claw our way back.

We seem more divided white against black as ever Jim Crow intended. We are being fed a steady diet of hate and resentment and fear of The Other. 

We cannot pick up a paper or turn on the television without learning of yet another mass shooting. We are not safe in our schools, the public square or our places of worship because gun possession is held to be sacred above all other American values.  

I was going to tell you that this is the most important election of my lifetime for just one reason.

There is a callous, calculating hate monger in the White House. And every day he finds new ways to divide us one against another. He ridicules and derides and debases. And he delights in inciting the mob that aches to blame someone else, anyone, for their problems. 

All to stroke his monumental ego. 

He is bankrupting America. He scorns nations that have been allies for generations. 

He has a captive Congress whose leaders are without principle or scruples and who will not stop, or even moderate, his excesses.

He is the leader of a party that holds power by gerrymandering, voter suppression and by cynically employing the propaganda tools of fear, bigotry and hate.

He is not on the ballot. But those who empower him are. They are guilty of dereliction of duty and must be turned out.

I was going to tell you that this is the most important election of my lifetime because two more years of Trump unleashed will likely be our undoing. 

That our very democracy hangs in the balance. 

I was going to tell you all of that. 

But do I really have to?

Don’t you already know it?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

 

On the smell of money

And then there was the time Gov. Claude Kirk went to Perry for a little flesh-pressing and back-slapping. 

Perry being a paper mill town, the stench that day was especially ripe. But when Perry’s mayor ventured an apology, Kirk wouldn’t have it. 

“Don’t apologize,” Claude said. “Why that’s the smell of money.”

Claude’s quip resonates when reading about all the brown water that’s lapping the shores of Gulf Coast beaches and offending the sensibilities of millionaire waterfront homeowners in Hobe Sound, on the Atlantic side. 

That filthy water is the look, if not the smell, of money. Although you’d never convince all the business people who make their livings selling the Florida pristine beach dream to tourists. They’re in a panic.

No, it’s the smell of money for the Big Ag tycoons who have for years been dumping their nutrient rich effluent into Lake Okeechobee with impunity. Now, to keep the Rhode Island-sized lake from breaking free of its earthen prison, water “managers” are frantically dumping the filthy stuff into rivers that flow east and west.

And every politician with a dog in the hunt wants to blame someone else for the godawful mess. Gov. Rick Scott liked to blame former President Obama for failing to keep Okeechobee’s dikes in good repair. The Dems blame Gov. Scott for his disdain of environmental stewardship.

But really, they are blaming the wrong villains. And in any case, the bad guys are long dead and buried. 

Lay this one on the doorsteps of Herbert Hoover and Baron Collier. 

Hoover being the President who toured Lake Okeechobee in the 1930s, after a couple of killer hurricanes, and decided we could solve Florida’s killer ‘cane problem, for now and ever more, by locking the misbehaving lake up behind trillions of tons of packed dirt. 

Collier being the southwest Florida developer who championed construction of a cross-Everglades highway – the Tamiami Trail – thereby enabling development to explode on both east and west coasts.

They both seemed like good ideas at the time.

But locking up Lake Okeechobee turned it into a cesspool. 

And Tamiami Trail – a marvel of early 20th Century highway engineering – turned out to be an incredibly efficient dam with which to disrupt the natural flow of water south through the River of Grass from – surprise! – Lake Okeechobee.

“Everglades National Park is so water-starved they even have alligators dying. This is what is so idiotic! That you get too much water north of Tamiami Trail and then all the deer population is drowning and you’ve got starvation of water just to the south in Everglades National Park,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has said week.

When you come down to it, what’s polluting Florida’s formerly white beaches right now is arrogance. This notion that we can reengineer our wet and spongy peninsula and force it to submit to whatever we want to do with it – build condos where mangroves once sprouted, put up big box parking lots that plug aquifer recharge. Ditch, dike and drain swamps so a thousand subdivisions can blossom. Build highways to reach ever more remote stretches of developable land.

Arrogance is the history of Florida, folks.

Want to accommodate barges? Channelize the Apalachicola and make the Ocklawaha disappear. Is that winding, twisting Kissimmee River a nuisance to “progress”? Straighten it out. Hey, what’s with all those algae blooms up and down the St. John’s? Can’t be all that runoff, urban and agriculture.

And Florida is still flush with a surplus of arrogance. That’s why new high-rises are still going up on Miami Beach even as rising sea levels flood the streets. It’s why virtually every natural spring in the state is in decline. 

And seriously, with Florida’s drinking water stored beneath our feet, what sane person would even think about fracking down there for oil and gas?

Arrogance comes in small doses as well as big ones; hence the push to open up wetter, spongier eastern Alachua County to west Gainesville-style development. And hang whatever unintended consequences lurk down that well traveled road. 

Because that’s what we do in Florida. To paraphrase Uncle Walt, if we can imagine it we can build it.

Now we just need to figure out how to market brown beaches to tourists?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

    

Seeing is believing on I-95

Just when you think you’ve seen everything on I-95 this guy comes along. 

Traveling north through South Carolina I once saw a kid on a motorcycle, his girlfriend clutching his back like a human leach, weaving in and out of traffic and zipping past cars like they were standing still.

All this while balanced on one wheel. I never saw his front wheel touch blacktop. 

Just another day on the interstate in AutoAmerica. 

But right now we’re all focused on killer trucks, thanks largely to a recent spate of truck-involved crashes that have claimed lives and periodically turned I-75 into a giant parking lot.

And we should worry. There seem to be more big rigs on the road every day, feeding our addiction to consumption. Pushed to stay on schedule, drivers can be sleep deprived, road dazed and tempted to cut corners…literally.

Still, if I were driving a semi, I’d be more worried about the motorized chess players who forever jump from one lane to the next, looking for that next empty sweet spot that will let them stay ahead of the competition. 

Or the SUV cowboys who assume they won’t be stopped if they only drive nine miles faster than the limit.

Or small weaving cars lugging jury-rigged trailers full to the brim with loosely secured household goods. 

Not to mention the digital zombies trying to simultaneously track their tiny screens and whatever may be on the road directly ahead.

Interstate driving isn’t for sissies. And calling for a crackdown on interstate speeders surely can’t hurt. Although it probably won’t help much either, unless we’re prepared to hire a vast army of state troopers to keep us safe.

Anyway, there’s a more effective and cheaper solution. Especially now that we are entering the era of “smart” highways and “smart” cars.

Across the nation states are experimenting with roads that can generate their own electricity,  and even heat up to melt winter snow and ice. Sensors are being implanted to monitor traffic flow. Others may soon alert motorists if their tires are under-inflated.

If you drive on the Florida Turnpike without a Sunpass you won’t get a ticket in the mail, just a bill. This because a camera snapped your license plate. 

What that camera won’t photograph or ticket is that jerk who just zipped past you doing 90 on his motorcycle while balanced on one wheel and hoping he won’t lose his girlfriend.

Actually there have been some experiments” with cameras that ticket speeders on interstates. Phoenix tried it for a couple of years. Not long ago cameras mounted on I-95 in South Carolina resulted in a marked reduction in speeding – albeit while making a lot of people hopping mad. 

“We’re absolutely shutting it down,” state Sen. Larry Grooms, then transportation chair of the state’s senate, told NBC News last year.

Which is another way of saying that deadly driving isn’t a crime unless a cop actually sees you doing it. 

Or until you kill somebody.

Truth be told, we have the technology to shut down speeding, reckless, distracted and all other deadly forms of driving. What we lack is the will to use it.  

No, it’s easier, and less risky for politicians, to write off the 43,000 people who die on our roads and highways every year as simply the price we pay for freedom of the road in AutoAmerica.

Anyway, dead people don’t vote. But motorists who think they’ve been “set up” by technology sure do.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.

If now now, then when?

I’m not crazy about single issue voters. But if there was ever a time to be one, it’s now.

This election isn’t about a blue wave.

This is about a wave that is mottled green. With a nauseating smell. That is killing living things and destroying the Florida good life.

That is making us sicker and poorer. And that should make us angrier.

Where to start?

Visit any Florida spring and you will see that everything beneath the surface is coated with brown algae.

God didn’t do that, we did. With our fertilizers and pesticides and septic tanks and poorly-treated sewerage and stormwater runoff. 

Florida is unique in America in that we get nearly all of our drinking water from deep beneath our feet. Our springs are, literally, aquifer health checks. 

And we are what we drink.

But never mind the springs. Have you seen the Indian River Lagoon? It has for millennia been an amazing ecosystem, a natural wonder.

Now it’s killing turtles and dolphins and fish and sea grasses and more.

But never mind the lagoon. Do you know that Apalachicola Bay was one of the most productive estuaries in the world?

Now its oysters are vanishing, along with the people who made a good living pulling them from the bottom of the bay.

But never mind that. Why do we treat the St. John’s River like an open sewer, the recipient of millions of gallons of effluvia every day?

But never mind that. Consider that the nutrient-laden water of Lake Okeechobee is poisoning Florida rivers east and west.

And never mind that. You can’t have watched TV or read a newspaper these past months and missed the photos of masses of dead fish washing up onto the white Gulf shore beaches.

Where have all the tourists gone, Florida? 

But never mind that. Now red tide is making its way up the Atlantic side. That’s unprecedented.

Google “closed Florida beaches” and prepare to be depressed. And maybe a little scared. 

Bacteria, not sharks, are the new Jaws. Some of the flesh-eating species.

Florida, we are drowning in, we are drinking and we are eating the consequences of an environmental catastrophe that has been deliberate and calculating in the making.

It’s time for a reckoning.

And here’s a hard truth. For two decades one party has been responsible for the decisions and policies that have brought us here.

The Republican Party. 

For a generation we have not given Florida Democrats a seat at the decision making table. Don’t blame them.

Water is Florida’s best and ultimate asset. It’s been debased and there must be consequences. 

If we reward Rick Scott with a U.S. Senate seat after his abysmal 8-year record of environmental contempt then we deserve to stew in our own putrid liquid wastes. 

If we replace Scott with a Gov. Ron DeSantis then we might as well toast his victory with a glass of algae infused groundwater.

If we reelect Chuck Clemons or Keith Perry or Ted Yoho or any of the other Republican lawmakers who have faithfully voted the Pollution Party line, then we are treating ourselves to a double helping of the red snapper that washes up with all of the rest of the dead fish.

Those incumbents are telling you that they are environmentalists. 

They are lying. 

Their records betray them.

Do not reward them with your vote. Do not forgive them their trespasses. Do not say, “yeah, but guns and abortion and liberals…”

I hate single-issue elections. But this year I vote the clean water slate.

If not now, when?

(Published in the Gainesville Sun, Oct. 21. Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Photo by John Moran.)

 

Oh Florida!

37BB82AC-7895-4F53-8A47-DA3B45A44E08(I wrote this review of Lauren Groff’s collection of short stories, “Florida” for the Gainesville Sun.)

Lauren Groff disdains quotation marks in “Florida.”

I’m sorry, I mean in Florida.

At first I found this to be disconcerting. As a newspaper guy, quotation marks are my life.

But in reading Groff’s new collection of short stories it quickly becomes evident that punctuation anarchy can be wonderfully, decadently liberating.  

They are like annoying little double fence slats that seal a gated golf community off from Florida’s wild, prickly, sticky morass of swamps and scrubs and sandspurs and things that slither, gnaw and go bump in the night.

Groff, of course, is Gainesville’s most celebrated writer in residence. Her last book, ”Fates and Furies”  was praised by no less than former President Barack Obama. And it is fitting that this transplanted Yankee in Paradise would begin “Florida” with an account of her own anger-dispersing nighttime strolls (stalks?) through and around her Duckpond neighborhood.

And what a nocturnal journey. Hers is an exotic college town infested by grad students “who heated beans over Bunsen burners.” A refuge for black swans and a rapacious otter. Where elderly nuns dwell in ever-shrinking numbers.

There is a homeless couple who occasionally sleep under her house (“we tried to walk softly because it felt rude to step inches above the face of a dreaming person.”) And an obese young man on a treadmill, and a “fiercely pale” woman with a Great Dane “the color of dryer lint” and a “shy, muttering” woman who collects cans, and a man who “hisses nasties” outside a bodega with barred windows

Yeah, that’s so Gainesville. That’s so Florida. 

“I have somehow become a woman who yells,” Groff declares in the book’s very first sentence. And this single allowance sets the narrative for all that follows. Because her Florida is no pale plastic Disney concoction. It can be a fuming, fearful, glowering tempest-tossed geography. A land of both breathtaking beauty and “soul sucking heat.” Where summer is a “slow, hot drowning,” and air conditioners eat snakes, and a concussed woman may find her disembodied consciousness transported into the restless panther that endlessly circles her cracker cabin.

An “Eden of dangerous things.”

And Groff packs up this torrid Eden and takes it along wherever she and her characters go. What exactly is the point of fleeing to Paris, only to discover that “it has become somehow Floridian, all humidity and pink stucco and cellulite rippling under the hems of shorts”?

Yeah, we are all Florida now. 

Groff’s “Florida” is a Tim Burtonesque fairy tale in which a feckless mother abandons two little girls on a deserted island with wild monkeys and a dog who doesn’t like children. It is a woman’s almost mystical transformation from cloistered teaching assistant to beach bum to homeless Tent City resident to, finally, housekeeper in a communal “squat” on the edge of the Prairie – where she becomes one with the snakes and the gators and whatever it was that crawled across her throat. 

It is a tempest tossed house in which a woman visits with the ghosts of the men in her life while patiently waiting for the hurricane to carry her away. Where an algorithm-ruled recluse speaks in nano-bites to the wife who almost killed him. 

Speaking of ghosts, Groff herself admits to being haunted, even possessed, by two dead men. In “The Flower Hunters” a newfound obsession with colonial-era naturalist William Bartram makes her forget her motherly Halloween duties, discovering “she is most definitely in love with that dead Quaker.”

And then there is Groff’s much darker affair with Guy de Maupassant, which can only end badly on a cold French beach after she finally admits to herself that her one-time muse was “morally repugnant.”

Two more things about “Florida.”

One is that Groff is obsessed with the storm of life. It is the common thread that runs through each tale. Rain doesn’t fall in her “Florida”. It crashes to the ground, it envelops you in a wall, it arrives on the breath of a hurricane. “Worse then being in the storm was knowing what the storm was doing.”

And the other thing is that Groff is an absolute miser when it comes to parsing out words. “Florida” is a quick clean read because her prose is stark, precise and to the point. Like a distaff Hemingway (a comparison Groff would likely find as odious as to de Maupassant) she never says anything in 15 words if she can say it in 10.

“One perfect orange.” This for the woman who sought respite in Salvador from “The long dry years spent in the wilderness of her mother’s illness.”

“Florida” is Groff’s rumination on writing and marriage and motherhood and friendships and “the dread” and an Eden that stings and awes in equal measure. And if you are looking for a moral to this story, perhaps it is simply this:

“Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”

Yeah, that’s so Florida.

We. Are. This. Close

Woke up wild-eyed this morning. 

Glanced at my Rage-O-Meter. Tweeted my hellbent mob to stand by.

Check, check and check. 

Hmm, maybe running a pint low on my enthusiasm gap. 

Seriously, I’m getting a bit long in the tooth. And keeping a full pot of sustained indignation aboil is sooo exhausting at my age. Honestly, I don’t know how Trump’s boomer fanboys (and gals) do it. 

I can’t even stay awake late enough to see Baldwin sim his Carrot Top simper on SNL. 

Still, looks like we (aka The Left) are just about ready for the election. 

Seriously, we are this close (thumb and index finger held a hare’s hair apart) to winning the open borders socialism that we’ve talked about like it seems forever in my Wednesday night secret cell marching order meetings cum beer-and-pizza socials. 

This close Comrade!

Not really supposed to say this until The Day After. But the alt-right had it, um, right.

We did weaponize women (love ya Taylor). 

And blue-screen Redneck Nation (sing it Willie). 

You think that was hard? 

For our next trick we’re gonna turn your Bud Lite into Vitamin Water. 

And pry your assault weapons out of your cold, undead fingers. 

And enroll you in forced feminism indoctrination summer camp (Volleyball!).

Just like you said we were gonna do if we won.

Listen, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you don’t have enemies. 

This close, I’m tellin’ ya. 

Oh, I’m maybe getting ahead of myself. 

Can’t really say what The Donald and Vlad and the Kochs and Fox are cooking up by way of a November Surprise. 

Tax cuts for pit bull owners. 

Mobilizing the Rolling Carbon Corps on Election Day so libtards in their Priuses can’t find their polling places in all the smoke.

You, know, the nuclear option.

Seriously, don’t put anything past them.

But we’re this close.

To unlocking up Hillary.

To forced Medicare For All.

To making everybody live in bio domes.

And ride bicycles. 

And eat low carb, high fiber diets.

And drive EVs. 

And use transit.

And live simply so that others may simply live.

And save the whales. 

And admit that climate change isn’t a hoax.

Its gonna’ be so cool.

Better than making the cover of the Rolling Stone.

We’re.

This.

Close.

(Ron Cunningham’s official motto is “What Fresh Hell Is This?”

The hurricanes yet to come

(With Hurricane Michael bearing down on the Florida Panhandle this seems like a good time to post this piece I wrote for the current edition of FORUM magazine. How will Florida cope with hurricanes in the future?)

“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The great hurricane of 1928 caused Lake Okeechobee to flood its banks, drowning more than 2,500 people.

It remains to this day the most deadly storm ever to visit Florida. 

“The tragic irony is that Indians had foretold that Lake Okeechobee would spill over its rim once again to feed the Everglades.” writes Mark Derr in his book “Some Kind of Paradise” 

The Seminoles, it was said, could predict hurricanes “by watching the way sawgrass bloomed,” he continued. “Scientists speculated that atmospheric changes proceeding a hurricane made the pollen from sawgrass visible for several days before the blow.”

Ninety years later the science of hurricane forecasting and tracking has advanced to the point that it is no longer necessary to rely on local lore or blind luck to survive the advancing storm. 

And it’s getting better. Consider NOAA’s launch last year of a GOES-16 geostationary satellite that enables real time tracking of storms with updates every 30 seconds. Modern computer assisted forecasting provides ever more accurate information about where hurricanes are going, when they will get there and how strong they are likely to be. 

Which is not to say that public awareness about about hurricane impacts has necessarily kept up with the science. As National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham cautioned at this year’s annual Florida Hurricane Conference, “Here’s the deal, we could make a perfect forecast, but if people don’t understand it, it doesn’t count. We have to talk about the cone and communicate that we can still get impacts hundreds of miles away.”

Science and public education aside, two critical factors are conspiring to further complicate hurricane preparedness and disaster response in Florida, will likely continue to do so well into the future. 

1: In 1928 just over one million souls called Florida home. Today more than 21 million live here – and 14 million of them are concentrated in coastal counties.

“No matter how well your response is it’s still going to look horrible when you have to evacuate millions of people over road systems that aren’t built for this,” says Craig Fugate, former Federal Emergency Management Agency director. “We have far too many people who have built and continue to build in hurricane evacuation zones.”

2: Further complicating Florida’s surging coastal population growth is increasing evidence that climate change is driving rising sea levels and warmer ocean conditions. As a result, Florida is likely to experience even more intense and wetter hurricanes in the future.

That is the “thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night,” says Dr. Richard S. Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute and International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University. “If you start factoring in the possibility of increasing numbers of category 4 and 5 storms, and climate scientists are pretty clear about that, then that pattern may become the new normal.”

So how to prepare for the “new normal” of ever stronger hurricanes visiting ever-growing Florida?

First, heed the lessons of past storms. 

Twenty five years ago Andrew came ashore in Miami, leveling whole neighborhoods and causing damages in excess of $10 billion. The wreckage was so extensive that at least 10 insurance companies went broke trying to cover losses.

The lessons of Andrew? Existing building codes were inadequate, and the private insurance market could not be relied upon to cover all the losses. As a result, tougher South Florida building codes were adopted, and Florida established its Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. 

Moreover, the notion of building more storm-resilient communities continues to spread. 

“We deal with this all the time, and not just here in south Florida but in the low country of South Carolina and gulf coast of Texas, Mississippi and Alabama,” says Victor Dover, a Miami-based urban design consultant. “Every day city planning conversations about are taking place about how to build resiliency into next comprehensive plan update. 

“That wasn’t the case 30 years ago, it was something we had to bring up,” he said of his client communities. “Now they are bringing it up, and that’s a very good thing.”

Last year, Hurricane Irma served up another valuable lesson – that poorly conceived mass evacuation advisories may no longer be practical or safe. Evacuation warnings issued in advance of Irma brought interstate highway traffic to a standstill from South Florida well up into Georgia, potentially putting fleeing residents in more danger than if they had stayed home. 

“We over-evacuated in Irma,” said Olson, “everybody was traumatized by what Harvey had just done to Houston.

“There’s a saying; hide from wind, run for water,” he continued. “The people that needed to be evacuated were living in the coastal zones and we needed to get them away from the water” and the threat of storm surge.

 “And what caught everybody by surprise was that people did not evacuate locally, they  just got the hell out of Dodge. There were so many people on the open road that the road was not open.

“If you want to have fewer people driving the length of state, they need to be able to go to places that are not only hardened for safety but will allow a degree of comfort.” Pointing to the death of several elderly patients last year at a Hollywood facility that had lost power for several days he said “comfort in South Florida lives or dies with air conditioning. We need to rethink our sheltering system so its not only hardened but reasonably comfortable for an extended period of time.”

That means not only hardened evacuation facilities, but hardened utility infrastructure as well. Days on end without power leaves hurricane survivors demoralized, debilitated and at continued risk. 

At a recent Public Service Commission hearing on hurricane preparedness, Bryan Olnick, vice president for distribution and reliability at Florida Power and Light, said that aging wooden utility poles are “very much a weak link in our system.” Concrete and steel poles and underground lines, are more reliable in hurricane conditions. 

There is also a need to ensure that local and state hurricane response efforts are adequate to meet the immediate emergency. This point was driven home at the Hurricane Conference when current FEMA director Brock Long said responders should be prepared to “provide your own food and water and your own commodities to your citizens for the first 48 to 72 hours.”

 “If you’re waiting on FEMA to run your commodities, that’s not the solution,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that we can be right on time to backfill everything you need.”

Beyond the question of immediate emergency response, Long’s predecessor, Fugate, worries that over-reliance on FEMA’s rescue capabilities, and on the tax-subsidized federal flood insurance program, provides a perverse incentive for states and communities to continue to allow development in storm vulnerable areas.

“We price risk too cheaply,” he said. “Can you imagine what the Florida Legislature would do if there was no FEMA and they were routinely getting hit with hundreds of millions of dollars in  rebuilding and response costs? What they would do is change their behavior. We really need to look at how do we build and rebuild after disasters in a way that protects the homeowners and minimizes future disasters.”

In that regard even post-Andrew building code standards may not be sufficient if more cat 4 and 5 hurricanes are in store. Florida International University’s “Wall of Wind” test facility employs an  array of powerful fans and blowers to generate Category 5 wind speeds of up 157 miles per hour to test more hurricane resilient infrastructure designs. 

Olson said that, increasingly, hurricane preparedness may hinge on adopting “Code Plus” standards where possible. “If you take the current code and project what would be needed to get it one (hurricane strength) category further.”

“People and assets” can be better protected “if we build more strongly and locate more smartly…that is, if the vulnerability is reduced,” he said. “You can have growth, but you can’t have stupid growth.”

That said, Olson conceded “there are practical limits” to the ability to decrease vulnerability by building stronger and smarter.” In an era of increasing hurricane intensity, what happens to a community in the grip of an especially savage storm may ultimately be “in God’s hands.”

Just as Nora Zeale Hurston had prophesied. 

This is not Trump country

OTTAWA: Now I see why Donald Trump has a mad-on about Canada.

Just walk around this grand capital city of rough granite and brown stone perched on the edge of the Ottawa River and you’ll get it. 

Listen, this town wouldn’t even be here if the Canadians hadn’t been so freaked out about a possible  American invasion during the war of 1812 that they terra-formed a lock-and-canal system through the wilderness lest the enemy blockade the St. Lawrence River.

But that’s ancient history. Point is you can’t walk around here today without seeing In-your-Face-Donald signs overt and subtle. 

One restaurant serves a dish called “Love Trumps Hate.” Shops proudly display smiling photos of a young, energetic and articulate leader who is the anti-Trump in every way.

Not Justin Trudeau, although I’m sure they like him too. 

No, Ottawans are still infatuated with Barack Obama, whose last official visit was in 2016. Bakeries sell Obama cookies. 

Not that Canadians are all that vocal about our prez. Rage and anger tend to be an American bumper crop. North of the border they prefer to farm affability. 

“Give a message to your president…” our city bicycle guide began. And then he hesitated, shrugged and dropped it. Discretion being the better part of Canadian valor.

No, this is decidedly not Trump country.

Up on Parliament Hill a bronze suffragette brandishes a banner proclaiming “Women Are Persons.” 

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s still mulling that one over in the D.C. Swamp.

And on a bridge spanning the Rideau Canal, there is an outdoor display of photos and graphics asserting that the Canadian government believes climate change is real, serious and must be confronted, not denied. 

“Climate change impacts human health, the economy and natural resources,” we are informed. While Canada touts wind and solar, it is all coal all the time back in the presidential bunker formerly known as the White House. 

Meanwhile, people are lining up at Ottawa’s National Gallery to see its latest exhibit: Anthropocene.”

That being the theory that the Earth is entering a new geological epoch in which human activity, not nature, is permanently altering the planet. 

“Humans now change the Earth’s systems more than all other natural processes combined,” the exhibit argues. As evidence it offers startling aerial view photos: City-sized plastic landfills in Africa, oil refining on the coastal Gulf of Mexico, tundra tunneling in Russia, fracking in Wyoming.

There is a haunting video of the mass incineration of ivory tusks seized from elephant poachers that should make you cry if you have an ounce of compassion left in your soul.

Viewed from the 25,000-foot level, some of the images – copper smelting in Arizona, oil bunkering in the Niger Delta – at first look like lovely surrealistic art forms. Until it dawns on you that all the strange colors and weird shapes are, literally, earth-changing events.

That’s not Dali. Those “swirling, marble-like patterns are the result of leached heavy metals held in tailing ponds at an Arizona mining-smelter operation.”

But you don’t have to go to Canada to get schooled on this brave new world we are carving out for ourselves. Just visit UF’s own Harn Museum and see its new exhibit: “The World To Come: Art In The Age of Anthropocene.”

These artists “display a mastery of human power over nature”…all the while attempting to keep their “optimism in check and nihilism at bay.”

Oh the irony. Our down-to-earth terra-forming has literally become a unique art-form all its own.

Oh Canada. Oh America. Oh Donald!

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

(Published Oct. 7 in the Gainesville Sun.)