Florida is like a parfait. The bottom layer is made up of Miami, gays, and rich people; the middle is basically Disney World, stucco palaces, and suburban sprawl; and the top is more or less South Georgia run-off. In the mind of the average citizen, the state is essentially three different places with distinct cultures—or lack thereof. But what would happen if a man with a vision decided he wanted to make the idea of multiple Floridas a reality?
On October 7, the city of South Miami's vice mayor proposed just that. His resolution, which passed 3-2, suggests that the new state of South Florida would start from Orlando and go all the way to the Keys. And although the city of North Lauderdale passed a similar resolution in 2008, that version was largely symbolic. This one, according to its author, Walter Harris, is deadly serious. But Harris's determination doesn't make the split any more plausible, and the likelihood of South Florida becoming the 51st state are slim, to say the least. As the Sun Sentinel notes, "In order for secession to be enacted… the measure would require electorate approval from the entire state and Congressional approval."
Nevertheless, one can't blame Harris—or anyone, for that matter—for at least trying to secede from Florida. And his issues with his northern neighbors are valid. One of the main themes in the resolution is that, despite generating 69% of the state's revenue, southern Florida doesn't feel the government in Tallahassee is doing enough to address the unique problems that climate change pose to them. "South Florida's situation is very precarious," the resolution reads, "and in need of immediate attention. Many of the issues facing south Florida are not political, but are now significant safety issues." One of those issues, of course, is the sea-level change that some say will soon cause places like Miami to sink into the ocean.
Harris, 71, told me he was inspired by the recent push for Scottish independence. And he says that current Florida governor Rick Scott, who is running for re-election in November, poses a public safety issue. Scott, a Republican who is currently neck-in-neck with opponent Charlie Crist, implied in May that he doesn't believe in climate change because he's "not a scientist." Scientists, however, are pretty clear about where they stand on climate change. Just last month, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report that said by 2030 Miami will contend with about 45 "sunny day floods" per year as opposed to the six they deal with today.
"In most of the big south Florida counties, the average sea level is 15 feet or less," Harris told me. "In the lowest parts, it's about five feet. We have very serious issues that need to be handled locally without dealing with the bureaucracy in Tallahassee." He adds that the Turkey Point nuclear plant is of particular concern because it's in Homestead, which is in the southern part of Miami-Dade county. The plant is already dealing with issues from rising temperatures in its cooling canals.
Image via Flickr user Shawn Rossi
Originally, Harris wanted to make the cut-off at Melbourne, a beach town on the Treasure Coast near Cape Canaveral. But the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem begin in Polk County and the South Florida Water Management District, which is in charge of sending clean water south, has its service center in Orlando.
But if this new state of South Florida encompassed both Miami and Disney World, what would be left to support North Florida's economy? Dr. Sean Snaith is the director of the University of Central Florida's Institute of Economic Competitiveness. He says that bifurcating the state in the way Harris suggests gives South Florida the three largest metro areas in the state: Tampa, the tri-county Miami Area, and Orlando. "The panhandle is not very developed, but there'd be the fishing industry. There's Jacksonville with its port and financial sector. And then there are places like Gainesville that are supported by the university system," he told me. "[North Florida] wouldn't flourish, let's say that."
Snaith added that Harris's resolution is "silly" and that using the climate change excuse is a red herring. "If Scotland can't agree to independence from the UK, how could South Florida agree on independence? You've got a history and a lot more homogeneity in Scotland than in South Florida, where everybody is from everywhere else and there's no dominant culture."
But Harris, who sees himself as a Don Quixote character, believes the state's cultural differences will only help his resolution. Generally speaking, southern Florida is much more liberal than its northern counterpfart. Since January, for example, courts in Miami-Dade County and Monroe County, which is home to the Keys, have decided that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violates the federal constitution, and Fort Lauderdale in south Florida has the highest concentration of gay couples out of any city in the US. On the other hand, north Florida's beaches are known as the Redneck Riviera, and the surrounding areas have much more in common with the culture of Lower Alabama than southern Florida.
But these cultural divides aren't the primary issues. Harris adamantly believes that if Florida doesn't split in two, the part where he lives will fall into the Atlantic.
"I can't even begin to tell you the danger presented to Miami-Dade County by global warming and the government in Tallahassee," he says. "I don't know the next step, so right now it's about getting the word out. The powers that be say it's not gonna happen, but it can happen and it needs to happen now. I'm not gonna just lay down and die."
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