Long before Amanda Hagood moved to Florida, she was fascinated with its apocalyptic side, from the monstrous storms to the python invasions to the red-tide blooms. But after 11 years of living in the state, she finds herself thinking more about the consequences her own presence, and the millions of others living here, have on Florida's ecosystems. Her fascination has morphed into gratitude and a desire to do right by Florida's future.

Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Floridians are witnessing across the state. This essay was funded by the Schooner Foundation.

I’ve always been fascinated with the apocalyptic side of Florida. 

Long before moving here, I’d studied the Florida classics such as Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling.” I’d noticed a theme: the so-called Sunshine State seemed to be crawling with toothy varmints, monstrous storms, sinkholes and floods, and endless ways to get lost, drowned, or devoured. And while I’d had my share of summer beach trips to places like Destin growing up, the Florida experiences that really stuck with me were things like staring eye-to-eye with an alligator (in the swimming area!) at Wakulla Springs State Park. 

When my spouse and I finally transplanted to Pinellas County, we’d stumble on headlines like “Pythons are eating alligators and everything else in Florida” and just shake our heads. Oh, Florida. It’s only a matter of time before you kill us, right?

You could look at one of our newest challenges – the intensification of “red tide” events along the Gulf Coast, where we live – in a similar light.  Red tides, a type of harmful algal bloom, have all the makings of doomsday story: first, the algae that cause red tide emerge from deep in the ocean (just like Godzilla!) when seasonal upwelling, or a powerful storm, stirs up the lower layers where they normally live.

In Florida, red tide is caused by Karenia brevis, a type of single-celled organism called a dinoflagellate that produces harmful neurotoxins.  Photo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Encountering warmer waters – especially those loaded with nitrogen and phosphorous from nutrient-rich runoff – these once benign photosynthesizers transform into a nightmarish living plume that stains coastal waters green, red, brown, or, as one local observer put it, “root-beer colored.” Our “red tide” alga, Karenia brevis, even has a deadly superpower: a neurotoxin that can kill fish, birds, and marine mammals, resulting in literal tons of dead marine life washing up on our shores. Even beyond the shoreline, these blooms can cause respiratory illness and neurological symptoms in humans. 

I remember my own first experience with Florida’s red tide. In the summer of 2014, we ventured with an old friend up to Honeymoon Island, a picturesque beach once billed as an ideal vacation spot for newlyweds. After a long, sweaty drive in our friend’s ancient Nissan (the AC, predictably, busted), we headed for the water. Waist-deep in the warm turquoise shallows, a small dead fish gently bumped up against my hand. A moment later, I noticed another floating nearby. Then another. We slowly discerned the loose crowd of lifeless bodies faintly glinting in the water around us. 

For a moment we wavered; after all, we’d come all this way, hadn’t yet touched our picnic. Then the wind shifted, bringing with it the potent smell of rot. My skin felt suddenly itchy, contaminated, crawling with unseen microbes and whatever plague had killed all these fish. What the hell, Florida!? 

Then I noticed the posted signs. Until then, I’d never even heard of red tide. Upon Googling it (after a long, hot shower), what I learned sounded like a science fiction story: a deadly alga, stalking the seas, indiscriminately smothering fish and choking humans. And the kicker? We’re the ones that had woken the beast. 

While red tide events have occurred throughout the Gulf’s history, recent studies show a correlation between nutrient load in coastal waters (something we humans heavily influence by adding nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to our estuaries) and the recent intensification of harmful algal blooms. Like “Jurassic Park,” “Silent Spring,” or “Revelation,” like climate change itself – I began to catastrophize – this was just another example of our hubris coming home to roost. 

Or so I thought at the time.

Eleven years into our Florida life, my vision of the state has grown less dire and more domestic. Over that time, so much here has grown to feel like home. There’s a special neighborliness in the way everyone in our little beach town collectively waits for that subtle turn in the humidity, the change that means we can stop worrying about hurricanes and fling open the windows of our little bungalows – and maybe not close them again for months! 

Another important thing has changed for us since those early days in Florida: now we get to share this incredible place with my 7-year-old son and my 74-year-old mother. While Mom loves painting spectacular Florida clouds that play across the windows of her high-rise apartment, my son is a budding herpetologist who insists on wearing his favorite Florida (stuffed) animal – an Eastern diamondback rattler – around his neck whenever we leave the house. While we can’t claim the long lineage here that some of our neighbors can, we are now a three-generation Florida family. And we love the life we’ve made here.

It’s the press of more than 1,000 people moving to Florida every day. It’s the priorities of fast, cheap, and unsustainable development we keep choosing. 

But the deeper we set our roots, the more I ruminate on the consequences of our presence here. Standing along our town’s municipal beach – where, old timers will tell you, the skyline over our little corner of Tampa Bay has changed so much, and the water lost its remarkable clarity – you can see how today’s shoreline was sculpted out of massive dredge and fill operations. This construction boom in the 1950s tore up an estimated one quarter of the Boca Ciega’s natural floor, replacing mangroves and tidal flats with seawalls, bridges, and high-density housing. On top of that, it flattened and blanketed the dunes and coastal hammocks that once stood here with a patchwork of roads, parking lots, lawns, and storm drainage sewers. 

While this made sense when the goal was building housing for thousands of would-be Floridians like ourselves, the long-term impact has been to flush water too rapidly into the bay while undermining the bay’s ability to cleanse that water. This becomes unpleasantly obvious after we’ve had a good rain: trash and “runaway” items (I’ve seen shoes, basketballs, even lawn chairs) clog our sewer grates and retention ponds, while the levels of E. coli and other dangerous pollutants spike up in the waters around us (the students at the nearby college where I teach call this a “poonami” event). It’s a little like living in a house where the lights work great, but the plumbing stinks.

Rapid population growth has led to the decline of water quality in once pristine waterways like Biscayne Bay in Miami. Photo courtesy Sharon Hahn Darlin, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thirteen years ago, Pinellas County, along with two dozen municipalities within the county, made a bold move to help correct this issue. It enacted an ordinance that prohibited the use of commercial fertilizers, which freight our runoff from rain and irrigation with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, from June to September. But this year, that could all change: a proviso in the state budget calls for a one-year study of the efficacy of summer fertilizer bans on nutrient load in Florida waters. Sounds like a reasonable idea, but opponents worry that the study is a precursor to banning all local ordinances in order to defer to a less restrictive (and more industry-friendly) set of guidelines established by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. 

Of course, the county’s ability to make rules about horticultural technique is not the only freedom – or even the most important one – that hangs in the balance in Tallahassee these days. Right now, we’re struggling with even more basic freedoms, like what we’re allowed to learn, what kind of healthcare we have access to. But it feels all of a piece to me: our ability to self-regulate and work through the real, immediate crises we face as a community, continually sacrificed for a symbolic blueprint of control. 

Each year, Florida gains more than 300,000 new residents, putting strain on some of the state’s most fragile ecosystems. Photo courtesy B137, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some scholars insist we shouldn’t call these events “red tide.” The alga is not the aggressor, they argue; it’s the alga responding to profound ways in which humans have changed the hydrology, chemistry, and physics of a delicate ecosystem. It’s the press of a more than 1,000 people moving to Florida every day. It’s the priorities of fast, cheap, and unsustainable development we keep choosing. 

Florida. You don’t have to be a pessimist to live here, but it helps.

During the July 2021 bloom, a goliath grouper washed ashore in nearby St. Petersburg. The giant fish, easily the size of a coffee table, grabbed headlines as city workers struggled to remove it. (Further north, another dead goliath required the use of a backhoe.) That same month, the city reeled under the weight of the estimated 60,000 total heartbreaking tons of marine life ­– pufferfish, redfish, horseshoe crabs, pinfish, rays, eels, and many other species – that had to be removed from county beaches. Many pointed fingers to the spill at the shuttered Piney Point phosphate plant, which had dumped over 200 million gallons of nutrient-rich wastewater into the bay only months before.  

Living through a red-tide event can feel like living through a biblical plague. But this isn’t an apocalypse, just as it isn’t a science fiction. It’s the story of the densest county in the state, just shy of one million people packed into Pinellas’ 280 square miles, reckoning how to create a livable future, one in which our beautiful beaches and rich aquatic ecosystems can thrive alongside the human population. It’s a story that forces us to expand our perception of the water itself from a conceptual matrix – a bearer of nutrient load, a direction of tide – to a living force, a life force, with a destiny that matters. 

Once a semester, I get to share Robin Wall Kimmerer’s thought-provoking essay, “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” with my students. In the essay, Kimmerer, a botanist well versed in the language of science,  relates her story of learning Potawatomi. One of the extraordinary discoveries she makes is that many ideas that would naturally be expressed as nouns in English are expressed as verbs in Potawatomi – ideas such as wiikwegama (“to be a bay”). What, she frets, are the implications of “complicating” such a simple concept – a span of water where a freshwater river meets a saltwater ocean – by seeing it as a verb? And then it hits her:

A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When ‘bay’ is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores, and contained by the word. But wiikwegama, to be a bay, the verb releases the water from bondage and lets it live. ‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers.

By Robin Wall Kimmerer in “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”

There’s a strand of this same idea in the movement to transform Tampa Bay’s decades-old hardscape into living shoreline. This design concept transforms the coastal edge with natural materials – marsh grasses, oyster reef balls, and mangroves – creating a shore that is both more resistant to erosion and more hospitable to wildlife than a conventional seawall. It also foregrounds the role that critical species such as oysters play in stabilizing bay bottom, slowing the flow of water off the land, and filtering pollutants out of the water. Though we will not solve any of the problems we have created for the bay with living shorelines alone, they are a powerful example of how recognizing the agency of nonhuman species can help us restore the water quality of our bay – and hopefully, slow the march of harmful algal blooms.  

Fun fact: if we divided Pinellas County’s 588 linear miles of coastline between its 971,875 human inhabitants, we’d each have just over 1 meter of shoreline each. Imagine that! Just enough for each of us to stand on, to learn by heart. We could grab our neighbors’ hands and form a loving defensive scrum around our shore, or just high five each other with the sheer joy of living in a place so ridiculously beautiful, so improbably wild. 

The Florida fighting conch, Strombus alatus, is a marine mollusk found in South Florida. This species of conch is known to be territorial, inspiring its name. Photo courtesy James St. John, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This silly idea ran through my head recently as I watched my son jumping in the surf with his classmates, a first-afternoon-of-summer ritual which the kids at his elementary school have enjoyed for as long as anyone can remember. I felt a powerful desire in that moment that these kiddos might continue to enjoy this spectacular place for years to come, to experience the  love that comes from a deep connection to a place. When my son presents me with a waxy sunset-colored shell – “Look, Mama!  It’s a Florida fighting conch!”­– I feel gratitude welling up in the corners of my eyes.

Oh, Florida. Thank you for everything.

In the end, red tide – and maybe any environmental issue – is not a problem we can solve quickly or in one decisive stroke, not a fix-all technology, or a come-to-Jesus repentance. Instead, it could be the slow, patient, day-after-day application of our creativity, our hope, our desire for a world that flourishes, our willingness to do right by the future. 

Amanda Hagood lives in Gulfport, Florida and teaches courses in environmental humanities at Eckerd College. Her environmental essays have been published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, Bay Soundings, Salt Creek Journal, and Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. 

Cover image: An American eel washed up on a beach in Florida after a red-tide event. Photo courtesy Thomas Hallock