It was a dark but sunny day. On November 18, 2058, the dream that was Florida died.
The National Guard forced the last remaining band of determined squatters from their tent cities atop the Florida Ridge. As the last Freedom Flight touched down in Vidalia, Georgia, authorities sealed off the Florida border.
In lyrical but somber tones, eulogies lamented the loss of a place that had once seemingly stretched the limits of growth, life and the human imagination. Not everyone grieved. "What took so long?" sneered the Portland Oregonian.
Florida, alas, had no newspapers to report the obituary. In 2040, the state's last surviving paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, collapsed in one of the massive sinkholes that ravaged the region from Fort Lonesome to Longboat Key. When asked why nature devoured Sarasota but left Bradenton untouched, an angry county commissioner explained, "There are some things even the earth won't swallow!"
The descent from Sunshine State to Shutdown State began in 2009, when Hurricane Job -- gadflies labeled it Hurricane JEB! -- struck the West Coast with a fury, taking down bridges spanning Tampa Bay and smashing barrier islands from Boca Grande to Honeymoon Island. Defying and defining nature's fury, JEB! thrice circled the Gulf and Atlantic in giant loops, each time gathering intensity as it hit land.
President Obama refused to declare Florida a disaster area, claiming that Tampa Bay already was a disaster area. The president was heard muttering to an aide, "Where's the avenging Archangel when we really need him?" Then hard times came.
Like Old Testament prophets punishing a wicked land, Hurricanes Isaiah and Jeremiah smote Florida in August 2058, but the killer storms simply punctuated 50 years of cataclysm: Global warming returned much of the peninsula to the sea from whence it came; the breaching of sea walls led to coastal flooding and salt water intrusion; and plagues of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes ravaged anything breathing. Gone like the tide were the coastal communities of Miami, St. Petersburg, Naples and Palm Beach.
Ironies abounded. Cassandra-like predictions that the erection of hundreds of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico would desecrate Florida beaches never came true. Instead, rising oceans simply swallowed thousands of miles of beaches and barrier islands. Regardless, the oil rigs proved worthless after the invention of solar-powered cars by Al Gore. And the cruelest cut of all, even the iconic sun turned on the Sunshine State, as massive outbreaks of melanoma were linked to suntan lotion, prompting the mass suicide of guilt-ridden mothers.
The state that once trafficked in the fantasies of millions of retired autoworkers and transplanted New Yorkers simply ran out of new dreams, and old solutions no longer made sense. Old-and New-World jealousies shattered any sense of commonweal: The Russian mob took control of the Hard Rock Cafe; Cuban and Puerto Rican seniors grappled with Jewish youth gangs; and eco-terrorists responsible for blowing up SheiKra sabotaged Sierra Club proposals to turn Seaside and Celebration into state parks.
The descent of Florida from paradise to wasteland hit the elderly especially hard. In 2035, the hundredth birthday of Social Security, burgeoning numbers of baby boomer retirees forced the Census Bureau to reclassify senior citizen status as 85 and above. Boomer males demanded free Viagra prescriptions; female boomers successfully lobbied for euthanasia laws.
Like hyenas pouncing upon a barely alive carcass, Georgia and Alabama gobbled what was left of bordering coastal counties. Georgia's most prized possession was now ocean-blessed Baker County. Macclenny exalted in its new status as a nude beach made famous by the jingle, "Go skinny in Macclenny!"
Cultural and political issues had long divided North and South Florida. The breaking point came in 2033, when 10 counties west of the Apalachicola River seceded, creating the new state of Riviera-on-the-Panhandle. The discovery that a gene found in the gopher tortoise prolonged life resulted in high-tech investment and the building of a sleek new capital at Vernon. When asked what departing words Riviera had for Florida, the new governor replied, "Eat more gopher!"
Geography is destiny. The state that had marketed oranges and sun into elixirs of health now suffered from too much sun and too little fun.
Alas, even Disney World bailed out. Corporate officials abandoned Florida, re-emerging as an Open City, a modern-day Monaco-on-the-Reedy.
But mostly, Florida became irrelevant. The popularity of virtual tourism, allowing consumers to imaginate vacations without the annoyance of delayed flights, traffic jams and annoying waiters, made Florida theme parks seem fuddy-duddy. Curiously, the single favorite virtual fantasy involved retro-1950s motor excursions to Silver Springs and Cypress Gardens. Baby boomers who had first encountered the Sunshine State as giddy youngsters gasping at Shamu's acrobatics soured on the idea of spending their golden years as residents at Top of the World and Sun City Center.
As Florida's last hours counted down, poignant scenes played out. St. Petersburg's Bayfront Tower stood as symbol and sentinel. When it was erected in 1975 as the city's first high-rise condo, it was hailed as downtown's rebirth; it later resembled a lighthouse stranded in an eerily deserted Tampa Bay. Governor Rome Crist II pleaded with Bayfront's last resident, his grandfather and former governor, to evacuate. From the fortress's top balcony, a tanned, trim 102-year-old Charlie Crist urged diehards to stay positive and ignore naysayers. "It's always a great day to be in Florida," he was heard to say as the building began its death sway.
On August 31, 2058, FEMA and EPA officials sealed off the Interstate highways and Florida borders. A gloom enveloped Tallahassee, as the National Guard saluted the flag of Florida for the last time. In the shadow of the Old Capitol, justices heard last-minute appeals. But Justice Al Gore II ruled that Florida no longer counted. "You don't need to get snippy," he replied as he departed in a solar-powered Hummer. The license plate read, "Nature Bats Last."
The muffled words of the state song, Jim Morrison's "This Is the End," could be heard across the Capitol. Once again Florida was reinvented, this time as the greatest iguana and python sanctuary in North America. The new territorial flag featured the Starbucks swallow kite, MSNBC manatee and Ikea Ibis, all extinct species.
Gary R. Mormino died shortly before the publication of this article in November 2058. He was 111 years old. He directed the Florida Studies Program at USF St. Petersburg before his retirement in 2013. Threadbare, he returned to teaching in 2014, when the state retirement system collapsed. Expatriate Floridians grieved his passing.
In 2258, scientists confirmed what polar bears and Newfoundland beach bathers already knew: The earth was growing colder. As ice caps expanded and temperatures plunged, Americans searched for answers. Preachers turned to Acts 8:26: "Arise and go toward the south."
A bewitching peninsula bursting with palm trees, orchids and bird rookeries awaited humans. Long-abandoned orange groves and trailer parks had spawned intricate eco-systems. Coral reefs and oyster banks returned. In Central Florida, the turret of Cinderella's castle and Clermont's citrus tower thrust through sand dunes, now home to prairie dogs and scrub jays. Biologists and poets described the place as a "paradise" and "dreamland," words not attached to Florida in centuries.
Archaeologists explored a lost civilization of Old Florida. In Plant City, Boy Scouts stumbled upon thousands of uncounted ballots from the 2008 election. Buried in the parking lot of Buddy Freddy's were 30,000 absentee ballots, enough to award Buddy Johnson victory in his foiled race for supervisor of elections.
In tribute to the 400th anniversary of the Oklahoma land rush, Congress decided to open up the new territory of Florida with an old-fashioned stampede. On April 22, 2289, a crowd of adventurers and second-chance takers gathered along the border, anxiously awaiting the signal. A starting pistol in one hand, an opened book in the other, President Prospera Miranda asked Americans to rediscover and redefine Florida. Quoting Shakespeare's The Tempest, she summoned the "stuff as dreams are made on."
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