“Florida man” is the source of many ridiculous headlines. So many that now there is a “game” you can play by typing your birthday and “Florida man” into Google to see what headline comes up. September 5: “Florida man caught with nearly 200 illegal lobsters.” September 6: “Naked Florida man starts housefire while baking cookies” and “Florida suspect tries to swim away from the police, subdued by algae.” And, of course, in 2017 around this time, Floridians made headlines for planning to fire guns at Hurricane Irma. But this year’s Hurricane Dorian didn’t bring out the sidearms as much as it has brought out another side of “Florida man.” This week a Florida man made headlines by buying 100 generators at Costco to give to the Bahamas. The difference in headlines comes down to a sense of place and its corresponding purpose, brought about by the storm. That seems especially true in my neck of the woods, Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach County is no Port William. We have almost 1.5 million residents, many of them transplants, and every election the vote counting is very tense. But the bad weather looming over us the past few weeks has prompted a sense of place and the ethic of neighborliness. In his 2016 book Tribe, Sebastian Junger wrote that “modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.” This is why “hardship can turn out to be a great blessing.” Hurricane season is a hardship that can help connect people to tribe, not just through the force of emergency, but through the power of place.
Part of being grounded in a place is being attuned with your environment. In the north, people know when they need snow tires. In south Florida, people prepare for hurricane season. Some have their generators waiting in the garage. Almost everyone has extra flashlights. People glory in drill bit attachments that do wingnuts. When a storm is actually coming, the most valuable local proficiency is the ability to put up hurricane shutters—and then go help someone else with theirs. People from work, school, or church text around to see who needs help. You find out who has a good ladder and who won’t go up a ladder if they can help it. The skills and social networking of storm season can bond people together. Being tied to these local rhythms, conditions, and talents is part of having a sense of place. Living in south Florida is not like living in all other parts of the United States.
During the past week, south Florida was in a staring match with the eye of Hurricane Dorian. Palm Beach County promptly flooded Publix aisles, emptied gas stations, and sold out plywood at Home Depot. We put up shutters and filled sandbags and consoled distant relatives who phoned with concern. In the end, Dorian blinked and went north. But not before sitting on the Bahamas for days as a category five storm and causing serious damage, especially in the northern islands. You might expect that Floridians are currently experiencing relief. They are. But in Palm Beach County, no one seems to express gratitude for being spared without also expressing grief for the damage sustained in the Bahamas.
One of the strengths of being grounded in place is knowing neighbors. That means helping local people with shutters, but it extends further. Palm Beach County is geographically closer to Abaco than to Georgia. People here have a real awareness of the Bahamas. Many locals grew up going over on boats as teenagers and many people, locals and transplants, vacation there. Lots of people have friends or family in or from the Bahamas. This week on Instagram, Palm Beach County History online directed people to a page which includes the history of connection between our county and the Bahamas. As the Palm Beach Historical Society reminded followers, “the Bahamians are our neighbors and share our history.” Part of being a good neighbor is being aware of, and sensitive to, the needs of others.
Right now, Palm Beach County is full of neighborliness. It seems like everyone is raising support for the Bahamas. It would take thousands of words to describe the mobilization of resources that is happening. Every coffee shop and many local restaurants are busy doing something to help. Police and fire departments have been organizing supplies. Locally based charities, like Missionary Flights International and Eagles’ Wings Foundation, are in full swing. Someone is doing donation matching with the Palm Beach United Way. Local businesses with connections are gathering supplies to take over in private boats and planes. It almost seems like anyone with a big enough boat has a plan to help. And yes, people realize that not everyone should just show up in the Bahamas this weekend with canned goods, but almost everyone wants to do something. People are taking the supplies they bought for Dorian and giving them away. And they are buying more things and giving those away, too. Having an awareness of where we are on the globe has made Palm Beach County more sensitive to the needs of our neighbors, the Bahamians.
Our society seems to struggle with understanding the role of place. Americans keep moving away from home for school and work and have a harder time identifying what place is their place exactly. In this context, we wage abstract debates over what kind of tariffs or what brand of nationalism or what personal shopping practices are the best protectors of place. Though we don’t need to glorify hurricanes or crises, in Palm Beach County, Hurricane Dorian has helped remind us of what it means to be connected to place. Even in a “global” society, people remain attuned to their environment and have the skills and social bonds to thrive here, in particular. And though we are practicing it imperfectly, the underlying ethic in storm season is neighborliness. A healthy sense of place is not only internally focused or consumed with fears of being overwhelmed. It has a grounding in local strengths and the ability to look beyond the next street over. That sense of place not only provides a sense of belonging where you are but a sense of purpose in the wider world. That type of neighborliness can be our guide for communities of all kinds and does not require a storm season.
Yes, a Jacksonville man did park his smart car in his kitchen in advance of the storm, but in South Florida we have demonstrated that even in a state full of transplants and a country full of “digital nomads” it is possible to develop and demonstrate a healthy sense of place.