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A Decade of Florida History

A decade ago, we were all on edge, stockpiling bottled water, withdrawing a little extra cash and wondering if the Y2K bug was going to disrupt life as we knew it.

It didn't – but ten years on, life as we know it has been altered considerably. Many of you are reading this story on your phone, nearly unimaginable in 2000. The news most of you got back then was delivered by television, in a newspaper on the doorstep or a pack of photocopied clips delivered to the office.

As 2000 dawned, you picked up those paper news clips to read about the ongoing Elian Gonzalez saga in Miami, and maybe wondered as Alan Keyes finished third in the Iowa caucuses whether a black man could ever be elected president.

As the decade comes to a close we can look back at 10 years of massive change in America in terms of personal and business technology and the way we all get information, a monumental landmark in national politics with the election of the first African-American president and in Florida, several years of steady population and economic growth that came crashing to a halt at the end.

As we look to round up the decade that just ended in Florida and determine the long-term impacts of the biggest events, we start with the biggest political story of the 10-year period, which coincidentally came at the beginning of the time frame, as the state decided who would be president for most of the 2000s.

The 2000 recount gripped not only Florida but much of the world. The closest presidential election since 1876 came down to Florida's 25 electoral votes and shone a spotlight on Palm Beach County and the butterfly ballot. The contested election stretched into December before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 13 in Bush v. Gore that a statewide recount was unconstitutional and as 2001 began Congress certified the vote and Bush took office.

With the hindsight of ten years, the impact of that event can't be overstated in terms of its effect on not only Florida, but the nation and the globe. A 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2000, and the decisions that led up to it, arguably affected nearly everything that happened in national policy during much of the last decade. The decision made Bush the president – and one might surmise that much would have been different had Gore been the president. Obviously, no one will ever be able to agree on how things might have been different, but, in effect, pretty much every national policy between 2000 and 2008 owes its existence to what happened behind the election booth curtains in Florida that year and in the courtrooms and campaign war-rooms in the weeks after the razor-thin election.

After that kind of start, you might think everything else would be insignificant.

But back during the summer of 2000, as Bush was preparing to head to Philadelphia for the GOP convention and Gore to Los Angeles for the Democratic convention, a group of Middle Eastern men were arriving in Florida and enrolling in flight school. Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi were, that summer, studying at a flight school in Venice, Fla., for the terrorist attacks that would shake the nation just over a year later and be another defining point in the decade.

The long-term impact on the nation of the Sept. 11 attacks also can't be overstated. One might argue that the defining element of life in the 2000s in this country was that we were a nation at war with terror, that many of us had, at least in the back of our minds, a fear of terrorism and in some cases of Islam, and that the two ground wars that the country fought were a result of that September day.

The Afghanistan conflict was a direct result of the war against terrorists, the Iraq war, arguably indirect. For thousands of families who had loved ones serve in the military and anyone who had their routine changed (remember being able to take drinks on an airplane?) the Sept. 11 attacks that began, in a sense, with training in Florida, changed everything.

While we dealt each of us in our own way with the constant threat of a terrorist enemy, many of us noticed at some point during the decade that we were getting better off financially.

There was a small recession at the beginning of the decade, and Florida's economy took a huge hit when tourists stopped coming after the Sept. 11 attacks. But taken over the long run, the decade represented economic growth until just recently. Anyone who owned a house in Florida at the beginning of the decade saw its value go up dramatically through most of the 2000s. Nearly anyone who owned stocks, or a retirement account, was better off in 2007 than they had been. Jobs were plentiful for most of the ten years.

The next biggest story of the decade requires a jump to the end of the decade – right now. Much of that prosperity of the 2000s evaporated in the last two years. Homes plummeted in value. Foreclosures and unemployment skyrocketed – the jobless rate climbing to a three decade high. An awful way to end a decade that had mostly been marked by steady economic growth. The causes of the crash will be debated for years as will its long-term impact.

But that long term effect was already beginning as the decade came to a close. More people moved out of the state in 2009 than moved into it from other states. One of the biggest ways Florida looked different in 2009 than it did in 2000 was in its population. The state grew by 20 percent over the decade – from under 16 million as the millenium changed to a population approaching 19 million as the decade ends.

People moved here from all over during the 2000s – they came to participate in the building boom. (And they came to take part in a rebuilding boom – more on that in a minute).

Many of those people came from other countries – and some came illegally. Regardless, the character of a state is changed a fair bit when one in five people wasn't here ten years ago. A little place called The Villages near the northern end of the Florida Turnpike was, essentially, indeed a retirement village in 2000. There were 8,000 people there. By 2008, there were more than 75,000.

For those interested in government and politics, that massive population boom – which was felt pretty much statewide - also can't be overstated. The Florida that couldn't make up its mind on Bush v. Gore is different now – a huge number of the voters here now weren't even participants in that election.

If the war on terrorism and waves of new people – many of them from foreign lands and speaking foreign languages – wasn't enough to make Floridians uneasy through the 2000s, well there were two years where just about anyone in the state might have felt a little on edge.

The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons changed the way everyone who lives here thought about their own safety. Inland residents used to not worry about big storms, until Charley cut a swath across the state that left people in Polk and Orange counties without roofs. Few people in emergency preparedness circules ever thought much about how you respond to two big hurricanes in a year, much less a quadruple whammy, when state officials in 2004 had barely finished responding to Charley when Frances hit. And then Ivan. And then Jeanne.

It took the Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte areas years to be fully back to normal after Charley. It took Pensacola the same to recover from Ivan.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when 2004 was gone, though the long term impact of the hurricanes is still being felt in property insurance rates. But then 2005 came, bringing Wilma to South Florida and Dennis to the Panhandle. And Katrina, which skirted the keys before heading to a life-changing landfall in Mississippi and New Orleans.

While Katrina was mostly a story for other Gulf coast states, it was a wake-up call for all of us in Hurricane Ally. Katrina was so powerful – not just in the strength of its wind and water, but in the strength of its images – that its impact was national, even if its damage was mostly confined to three or four southern states. The demographic shifts Katrina began were felt through the region.

Some say Katrina was the turning point for a Bush administration in Washington that was popular in its first term, and not so much in its second – arguably paving the way for the election of a Democrat to the White House in 2008.

Andrew, back in 1992, may have been Florida's storm of the previous decade – changing the way South Florida looked, thought and developed. But Katrina was the nation's storm of the 2000s.

Katrina was a reminder of the power of hurricanes and a major element in the mid-decade beginning of the discussion of global climate change – bringing a previously off the radar issue to the forefront of the national discussion.

As the nation looked anew at its own views on poverty, race and infrastructure in the aftermath of Katrina, Florida began what would be years (continuing today) of dealing with the economic consequences of its own two big hurricane years – and a general changing in the way insurance actuaries view the Gulf of Mexico coast.

For Floridians, the second half of the decade changed the personal econmomic narrative some more. Already dealing with the tax consequences of higher property values, Florida residents even in inland areas, now were seeing double digit increases in property insurance rates. The Legislature for two years straight tried to figure out how to deal with people who said they could no longer afford to live in Florida because they couldn't afford their insurance.

The impact of those storms and the insurance companies' reaction to them continues to be felt.

Lawmakers responded by freezing insurance rates for customers of Citizens Property – the state's biggest insurer, a freeze that ended Friday with rates starting to edge back up.

In 2000, traffic was bad in Florida. As the state grew, it only got worse.

Some had for a while seen rail travel as a solution and voters even changed the constitution in 2000 to require a high speed passenger rail from Tampa to Orlando to Miami after a successful campaign by Lakeland businessman C.C. Dockery.

But as the 2003 construction start neared, Gov. Jeb Bush began working to convince voters that it was a boondoggle that would cost too much. He led an effort to appeal it, and voters did in 2004.

Train backers then turned their attention to a proposal to get commuter rail in Orlando, but that idea was defeated in both 2008 and 2009 in the state Legislature, a defeat widely credited to Dockery's wife, Paula Dockery, a state senator, who said that she obviously was a fan of rail like her husband, but she didn't like the particular deal for the Orlando train.

But by the end of the decade, not only was the Orlando commuter rail approved, it looked possible that Florida might get money afterall to start the bullet train that Bush had derailed a few years earlier.

Politically, the 2000s were a decade of Republicans in the capital, though the state's voters were split down the middle in their party preference. The right-down-the-middle nature of the electorate here was, of course, most obvious in 2000 when voters deadlocked on the presidential election, while electing Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, but keeping the overwhelming Republican majority in the Legislature. In 2004, the state voted for Bush over John Kerry, after having returned Bush's younger brother to the governor's mansion easily in 2002. And by 2008, the state's purpleness leaned a little more blue in the presidential race, putting Florida's electoral votes in the Obama column (making the three presidential races of the decade one for the Rs, one for the Ds and one essentially a toss-up), while again voting for Republican state legislators even as they threw out a couple Republican congressmen.

There have been arguments that the drawing of districts favored Republican state lawmakers – and it likely has. But it is still clear that about half the state favors the policies of the GOP and about half favors the policies of the Democrats.

Two other political stories rise to the top when looking at the decade as a whole.

The first is the Constitution. In a state where voters can't change laws by popular vote and have seen the Legislature vote against things that were clearly popular and for things that clearly weren't – voters have time and again turned to an easy-to-amend constitution to affect popular change. This decade fed-up voters not only put a train in the document and then took it out, they voted to decrease class sizes even as the popular governor (Bush) said the cost of such a move would “blot out the sun.” The constitution by whim notion concerned politicians who have at various times through the decade moved to make it harder for the people to amend the constitution, and the whole discussion got a poster child during the decade when Floridians voted to outlaw the use of certain crates for pregnant pigs.

In a state without much of a pork industry, many thought that frivolous, but as the calendar turns, some of the biggest, most central issues of how we govern ourselves remain to be fought on the ballot, rather than on the floor of our legislative body. As Floridians prepare for the next decade, they may be asked to decide what the constitution should say about how the state will grow during the next decade as a measure requiring popular approval of new development prepares to go before voters. And they may also decide what the Legislature will look like in the next decade as they contemplate a constitutional amendment dealing with the details of how legislative and congressional boundaries should be drawn.

As those two events look forward to the next decade, the other major political story of the previous decade also looks forward. The decision in 2009 by U.S. Mel Martinez to quit his job early, opening the door for Gov. Crist to decide to run for Senate, will have long term implications on the political landscape of the state for the next ten years because of the politico job changing it has kicked off.

With that, we look to the top 10 stories of the 2000s, as determined by News Service staff – completely without any scientific merit whatsoever, but with a look to their likely longterm impact on the greatest number of people in the state:

10 - The effort to bring to Florida a new segment of the economy – biotech. Long a high tech and intellectual backwater compared to other places in the country, many in the early 2000s had a vision of a Florida where lots of research was done – borrowing from a long-ago Associated Press story, hoping to make Florida a little less Mickey Mouse, a little more lab rat. Several years on, Scripps, Burnham, Max Planck and other smaller research outfits have the state at least on its way toward that vision.

9 – The battle over the life of Terri Schiavo. This was probably one of the three or four biggest national news stories to happen in the state over the 2000s, but its long term impact is arguable. The debate over what would be done with the feeding tube of a woman in an unresponsive state did touch off a national discussion of end-of-life decisions and is thought by some to have cleft the nation in two in terms of its political and cultural discussion – a religious and “culture war” that continues to this day.

8 – Everglades Restoration. The move during the 2000s to try to restore the natural flow of water south through the Everglades and with it, the natural ecosystem of the River of Grass, is seen by environmentalists as one of the monumental long-term decisions of the century, not just the decade. Delays and fights over cost may detract from the story in the public consciousness, but once done, not likely the impact on the way South Florida looks long into the future.

7 – The space program – the Columbia disaster and the coming end of the shuttle program. When Columbia disintegrated over Texas during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven crew members, it dealt a huge blow to the nation's space program. Shuttle flights – the business of Cape Canaveral and much of surrounding Brevard County – were suspended for two years, and construction of the International Space Station was put on hold. For more than two years, resupply of the station was done entirely by the Russian Space Federation. While President George W. Bush announced a new vision for space exploration in 2004, it can't be denied that the program was heavily damaged by the disaster. And that vision also called for an end to the shuttle program itself in 2010, after completion of its primary mission – supplying the space station. The shuttle, which has dominated NASA's mission since the 1970s, will be replaced by a new type of spacecraft – and how that will play into Central Florida's role in the space program is yet to be seen.

6 – The population grows 20 percent in the decade. Florida doesn't look much like it did in 2000, and chances are pretty good that some of your neighbors weren't even living here then. As big a story as the state's generally sustained growth over the decade is the leveling off at the end as the economy sputtered.

5 – The continued rise of the Republican party, creating a nearly even electorate. For decades, of course, Florida was, like the rest of the South, solidly Democratic. Demography changed (Cubans and wealthy northern retirees strengthened the GOP), political philosophy changed (think Reagan Republicans) and by the 1990s Republicans were on the rise. They dominated Tallahassee in the 2000s, and were about half the state's voters through the decade.

4 – Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While probably the biggest story of the decade nationally, the attacks had a tangential connection to Florida in that some of the terrorists learned to fly planes here. But the attacks also had a huge impact on the state – crippling the tourism industry for a long period in their wake. And of course, no matter where we live, the way we all live was changed that 2001 day.

3 – The hurricane seasons of 2004-2005. The back-to-back hurricane-heavy years changed the way much of the state looks – look at pre-Charley pictures of Port Charlotte - the way our houses are built (the building code underwent a re-working), who insures those houses and how much we pay for it.

2 – The 2008-2009 recession. The recession that started in 2008 is a story that can't be fully examined until it's over. But it has already changed the state in massive ways, putting 1 out of every 11 Floridians out of work, ending decades of in-migration to the state, and shrinking the state's budget after years of huge spending growth.

1 – The 2000 recount. The presidential deadlock that started the decade of the 2000s stands up as the big story for Florida. The state's indecisiveness ended up deciding the presidency, and arguably all national policy for eight years.

1 Responses »

  1. The first decade of the new Millennium has been a decade anyone lived through will remember forever. Stories and events that took place within the last 10 years will be stories passed down for many generations to come.