These days, when people think of South Florida, they think of dead tourists. Anyone planning to move there should think otherwise. And if you live there, you already do.
The people of South Florida live in fear. I feel comfortable making this generalization; I was a witness to it.
For three hot summer months, I saw the anxiety that built barricades to keep the wrong people out of the right neighborhoods. I saw the fear that bought handguns, installed burglar alarms and hired security guards.
Not everyone lives in fear, of course, but the ones who don't often are consumed with resentment or ridicule for the people who do. The ones that remain are the fear brokers, who by hook or by crook (often by crook) make a buck off everyone else's terror.
To fully grasp this regional psychology, you have to know what it means to be in hurricane country. Crooks and killers inspire fear anywhere, but say the words "Hurricane Andrew" in a crowd on any street in Dade County, and the effect can be devastating.
In late August, Hurricane Emily was about 1,500 miles away from the coast of Florida when the mania began to take hold. All the news stations expanded their weather coverage and began hourly updates of the storm's progress.
Thousands of homeowners rushed the stores, buying water, batteries, plywood, junk food--anything to get them through the storm that might just hit. Few people were taking any chances.
At the office where I worked, a dozen people crowded around a television set that once received only passing notice, and they watched the meteorologist as he refused to guess whether the hurricane would pass us by. "Maybe," he said, "but I wouldn't bet the mortgage on it."
That may sound funny, but it was gallows humor to most viewers. A year before, Hurricane Andrew had wrought billions of dollars of damage on South Florida, and it wrought far worse damage on the region's psyche.
As Hurricane Emily inched toward land, several hotlines were set up for anxious residents to phone in their concerns. The lines were flooded with callers who felt helpless, depressed and, above all, downright scared.
People who survived the ordeal of Hurricane Andrew know an all-consuming fear that another will come again. As a somewhat, but not entirely, disinterested student renting for the summer, I couldn't possibly have felt the same terror.
All I know is that the fear can be terrible, that it drove some to consider suicide rather than face another natural disaster. And I know that this particular fear is the only one which unites, rather than divides, the residents of South Florida.
There are, of course, the fear brokers who cash in during hurricane season, from the crooked storeowners who jack up prices on emergency necessities to the professional crooks that offer homeowners a sweet deal and then disappear with their money.
They don't have to commit a crime to make a buck. They sell handguns, and safety devices, and the television ads for those safety devices (ask anyone in Dade County which company "locks Miami," and you'll get an answer quick).
They are the television channels that cover graphic crime stories at all costs, and that sent news teams to cover Hurricane Emily even after it spun 1,000 miles away from Florida. One station sent two different news teams.
They are the people who run for office on platforms of hurricane funding and law and order. Good politicians can be expert fear brokers.
Even the glut of bars, nude shows, and porn houses offer a way for some to escape the fear which hangs over the place.
Really, then, violence against tourists has very little to do with South Florida, at least as far as the people who live there are concerned. The region is an exciting, growing place with an intricate and diverse, if sometimes tense, cultural make-up. And when a hurricane is on the way, South Florida thrives on its fear. For the most part, the fear of the hurricane leads a neighbor to lend a helping hand, or comforting words. It may even give fear brokers a much-needed education in social justice, as they scurry for supplies at the hardware store and their business collapse under fierce winds.
It just may be the fear that can knock down barricades. Certainly, it makes everyone forget about murdered tourists for a moment.
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