No one tells a better Florida story than the people who know this state intimately — either from living here or from engaging with Florida issues in a thoughtful way. As we reflect on a chaotic and confusing year, we draw inspiration from stories written by Florida women that we admire. Here are some of our favorite stories from 2020, presented in no particular order, and why we love them.
Editor’s Note: No one tells a better Florida story than the people who know this state intimately — either from living here or from engaging with Florida issues in a thoughtful way. As we reflect on a chaotic and confusing year, we draw inspiration from stories written by Florida women that we admire. Here are some of our favorite stories from 2020, presented in no particular order, and why we love them.
By Rebecca Renner, Outside Magazine
What it’s about: Rebecca Renner grabs our hand and plops us in the passenger seat as hunters comb the Everglades in search of invasive pythons. Florida’s Python Bowl, a 10-day state-sponsored hunting competition, drew 561 professional and rookie hunters in early January 2020. Technically known as “python elimination specialists,” these hunters use their expertise to cull expanding populations—a task easier said than done. “Possibly the defining feature of a python is how secretive and cryptic they are,” says Robert Reed, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey invasive species science branch. “If you have a python in eight inches of water, three feet in front of you, you may not detect that snake.” Pythons have devastated the Everglades and South Florida ecosystems, outcompeting and predating many native species. Hunters make a small dent in overall populations of invasive pythons, and widespread management has so far eluded policymakers.
Why we love it: Get out the popcorn! This is precisely the kind of intimate reporting that moves us past statistics to enliven an environmental topic. Renner’s vivid and active writing immediately roped us into the on-the-ground python hunts. We hung on to every twist and turn in her article, coming to understand firsthand (at least, it felt like that) the challenges, motivations, ups and downs of South Florida’s python hunters.
2. Mold, Foundation Cracks, Sinking Houses: How a Florida Habitat for Humanity Neighborhood Fell Apart
By Imani Jackson, Scalawag Magazine
What it’s about: Homes in Fairway Oaks, a predominantly Black Habitat for Humanity neighborhood in Jacksonville, are sinking. The neighborhood was built in a flood zone, which developers filled with trash to stabilize the land and make it buildable. Now, many of the homes are uninhabitable, with compromised structures and cracked foundations. Fairway Oaks residents also worry about methane from the decomposing garbage below them, and chemical contamination leaching from the former landfills. Homeowners filed a class action lawsuit against HabiJax and the City of Jacksonville, saying they wouldn’t have purchased their homes if they knew they’d been built on a dump.
Why we love it: Imani Jackson’s article lays bare, in her words, “tensions between environmental justice and the provision of quality, affordable housing.” Fairway Oaks is part of a long history of environmental racism and classism, wherein cost-saving measures are prioritized over the health and safety of marginalized and poor communities. Jackson’s article is an expert example of the sinister endurance of structurally racist policies in our own communities, and the importance of advocacy and grassroots organizing.
By Gabrielle Calise, Tampa Bay Times
What it’s about: On the 40th anniversary of the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, Gabrielle Calise speaks with two of the men who dove into the choppy waters of Tampa Bay to pull lifeless bodies from a Greyhound bus that had careened over the edge. Through interviews with Robert Raiola and Michael Betz, Calise takes readers on a moment-by-moment journey through the day it happened.
Why we love it: This story of a tragic moment in Florida’s history is artfully told by Calise, capturing the fear and uncertainty Raiola and Betz must have felt as they rushed toward the hopeless scene. The narrative quality of Calise’s writing makes this story intoxicating to read, and the details shine light on an often forgotten Florida disaster.
By Nila Do Simon, Garden & Gun Magazine
What it’s about: Nila Do Simon profiles GiGi Lucas of Jacksonville Beach, creator of SurfearNEGRA, a nonprofit with the goal of diversifying the surf lineup, and a founder of Textured Waves, a surfing collective for women of color. Lucas’ activism is part of a worldwide movement to bring visibility to surfers of color, and Do Simon notes that Lucas, a Black female surfer, is a rare vision, “given the sport’s abundance of shaggy-blond-haired males.” Do Simon traces the racist history of Southern beaches, showing how the legacy of Jim Crow and racial discrimination shaped who could be in the water.
Why we love it: Part of our mission at The Marjorie is to challenge assumptions about the environment and who is welcome in the outdoors—damned if this piece doesn’t fit squarely within that charge. Surf lineups are always more complex spaces than initially meet the eye, complete with pecking orders, distinctions between locals and non-locals, beginning and seasoned surfers, etc. Do Simon’s article is an important intervention into that hierarchy, showing how—and why—surfers of color are reclaiming the waves.
By Claire McNeill, Tampa Bay Times
What it’s about: “Under hazy skies, in soupy heat, in squelching muck and cramped pens, the cooler cow will thrive,” writes Claire McNeill. This article uses vivid descriptions to paint a picture of a likely future for Florida cows. McNeill describes how researchers are working to breed cattle that can better withstand increasing temperatures and humidity — conditions that our insatiable taste for beef has helped create.
Why we love it: McNeill must have had fun writing this one, because it is an absolute pleasure to read. This article will appeal to anyone who has an interest in Florida’s environmental, economic, culinary and scientific future.
By Nikesha Elise Williams, The Bitter Southerner
What it’s about: American Beach, a beach on Amelia Island, was purchased in 1935 by Florida’s first Black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, as “a place for recreation and relaxation, without humiliation” for African American people. Nikesha Elise Williams walks us through the history of how American Beach came to be, while exploring how she personally came to know about the place — through whispers “from the realm of her ancestors.”
Why we love it: The story of American Beach is one that has been asking to be told, and Williams did this complex and historically rooted tale much justice. Not only does she trace the origins of this North Florida gem, but she takes the time to help us get to know the life histories of some of the influential figures in the beach’s history.
By Virginia Gewin, Biographic
What it’s about: More than 900 people move to Florida each day, and development is expected to consume more than 5 million acres of wild and agricultural lands by 2070. The problem, Virginia Gewin writes, is not just that the Sunshine State will be crowded—but that development will compromise the land’s ability to support life. So how do we protect and conserve those spaces? One answer is to protect Florida ranches, whose lands are among the most critical and biodiverse parcels left. Gewin dismantles the rancher versus environmentalist trope, inviting us to instead see how the goals of each overlap, and whose futures are threatened by a common enemy: development. As rancher Lefty Durando says in this article, “Development is agriculture’s worst enemy.”
Why we love it: Come for the stories about efforts to save wild Florida, stay for the beautiful photography by Carlton Ward. Together, the words + images show us the magnitude of what’s truly at stake in Florida’s seemingly ceaseless population boom.
By Jenny Staletovich, WLRN
What it’s about: A glimmer of hope for one overfished species: researchers have discovered a thriving queen conch colony in the Caribbean. Despite efforts to protect and revive conch populations there, numbers have plummeted in recent years. Conch are a staple of Bahamian and South Florida cuisine and are keystone species in these aquatic ecosystems. But one study found that commercial fishing of conchs may no longer be feasible in just 10-15 years. This latest discovery offers a new opportunity for conch conservation and sustainability. “There were conch as far as the eye could see,” marveled Phil Souza, lead author on the project. “We really only scratched the surface as far as surveying the bottom.”
Why we love it: Let’s face it. We could all use more good news like this. 2020 brought a cascade of terrible stories, and this was an important reminder that Mother Nature will always surprise us. We can always count on Jenny Staletovich to bring rich, thoroughly reported stories like this to the public.
By Stephanie Cornwell, WUFT
What it’s about: In 1968, the Ocklawaha River was dammed, flooding over 7,500 acres of floodplain forest and 20 freshwater springs. Marjorie Harris Carr — one of our namesakes — founded the Florida Defenders of the Environment to fight to free the Ocklawaha. Many years later, her granddaughter Jenny Carr has taken up the mantle. Cornwell introduces the reader to the many sides of this issue — those who want to remove the dam, those who want to preserve it, and those who don’t know of a life without it.
Why we love it: Before the dam, the Ocklawaha was known as one of the most breathtaking and biologically rich ecosystems in Florida. This year, the river was named one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. The story of the Ocklawaha River is the kind of story to which we at The Marjorie are drawn. Those invested in the fate of the river may not always agree, but they do share concern for and an investment in Florida’s environment.
10. ‘Give Us a Break, Lord’: Amid Active Hurricane Season, Pandemic Halts Recovery in Florida Two Years After Michael
By Ayurella Horn-Muller, Southerly & Climate Central
What it’s about: Hurricane Michael was the strongest storm to ever hit the Florida Panhandle, and the impacts of its intensity are still being felt by Bay County residents two years later. Ayurella Horn-Muller introduces us to residents like Will Wells and Mary Hays, who are still struggling to bounce back after their lives were stripped away by the hurricane in 2018. “They had all these commercials where they said ‘We’re here for you,’ ‘850-strong,’ ‘Panhandle-Strong,’ and then you call and nothing,” Wells said. “Nobody helps the people who really need it in this town.”
Why we love it: Horn-Muller revisits the scene of destruction two years later, showing us that, while federal aid has been dispersed in the area, there are many left waiting for help to rebuild their lives. The emergence of COVID, ongoing racial disparities, the threat of this year’s hurricane season and the looming impacts of climate change all complicate this issue, and Horn-Muller does not shy away from tracing how the confluence of these factors reverberate into the lives of Panhandle residents.
11. Breaking Ground
By Gabriella Paul, WUFT
What it’s about: Nikki Fried is the only woman ever elected to lead the way for agriculture in Florida. Before she was selected, Fried was a public defender and marijuana lobbyist from South Florida. As the only democrat sitting on Governor Ron DeSantis’ cabinet, Fried has clashed with cabinet members over a number of issues, but has consistently bounced back and has become known for her resilience and her opinionated nature.
Why we love it: In this article, Gabriella Paul takes a moment to applaud the tenacity and accomplishments of one of the most influential politicians in our state. As the first woman to head the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Fried’s accomplishments deserve to be lauded, and Paul does a great job of describing what makes her unique, especially among the “Old Boy Network” in which she is now embedded.
By Madeline Ostrander, Hakai Magazine
What it’s about: The field of historical preservation is at a crossroads: preservationists are contending with climate change predictions and impacts—more frequent storms, rising waters, etc.—and how (or when) to save threatened historic structures. Madeline Ostrander wades through this dilemma through a case study of St. Augustine, Florida. As the Nation’s Oldest City, thanks to its Spanish founding in 1565 and continuous occupation since, St. Augustine occupies an important place in historic preservation. The Oldest City’s history is married to the U.S.’s origin story, and historic sites here inform both how our nation was founded and how it has evolved since. Ostrander shows how climate change mitigation has ramifications for historic preservation. “Every act of flood protection is also a choice that shapes the physical remains of history,” she writes.
Why we love it: We believe historic preservation in the age of climate change has been a hugely underreported issue. The climate crisis is also a crisis of identity. How will we as a community, country, species, etc., work to protect our heritage and sacred sites in the age of the climate crisis? And what does it mean to lose these places that are central to our senses of self and place? Ostrander’s piece helps us think a little more wholly about some of those challenges that face us.
By Marlowe Starling, WUFT
What it’s about: Popularized in Florida in the 1920s, septic tanks had a relatively negligible ecological impact—until our state’s population exploded. Today there are nearly 2.7 million septic tanks in Florida, accounting for roughly 13% of the national number. The quantity and age of septic tanks have researchers worried. The potential effects of old and poorly maintained tanks include environmental contamination and the spread of disease-causing microorganisms. Yet public health officials don’t know the location and status of every septic tank, making mitigation efforts that much harder. To top it off, septic tanks are subject to more leaks thanks to sea-level rise and more frequent rain events.
Why we love it: Today more than ever, it is incumbent upon reporters to engage their readers and help them care about seemingly mundane components of climate change—especially the necessary evils that fuel our everyday lives. This is an excellent example of a reporter who succeeds in doing just that. Marlowe Starling spells out how the commonplace septic tank can wreak havoc on the environment, with huge implications for public health.
By Alex Harris, Miami Herald
What it’s about: Though home sellers in Florida are required to disclose anything about their properties that could have a “substantial impact” on its value, reporting a property’s history of flooding is voluntary. As the state most susceptible to flooding from sea-level rise, this oversight has created problems for homeowners who only find out about flood risks after their property has been damaged by flooding, often repeatedly.
Why we love it: We meet Heather Gaker, a homeowner who wasn’t told about the flooding history of her home before she purchased it, and Alex Harris helps us understand how strong interests have ensured that property value is prioritized over the protection of consumers like Gaker in Florida’s housing market.
15. Rights of Nature
By Alexandra Sabo, WUFT
What it’s about: As the water quality of rivers and springs around the state become more degraded, the nature of some of Florida’s most prized ecosystems has begun to change entirely. “Rather than kaleidoscopic greens and blues, many rivers and springs… flow with inky green slime,” writes Alexandra Sabo. Sabo notes that humans’ relationships with Florida’s rivers have mostly been one-way, with our species polluting and draining this essential resource. But what would happen if natural entities, like rivers and lakes, had their own rights? How would we treat these natural spaces differently if they were afforded the same legal rights as humans?
Why we love it: The Rights of Nature movement has been in the minds and on the lips of many people in environmental fields in recent years and, as Sabo points out, Florida has become an epicenter for lawmaking around this movement. Sabo fleshes out the tensions surrounding the movement as well as the benefits that could arise from a world where nature is given the same legal respect that we expect for ourselves.
Credits: Cover photo by Hannah O. Brown