MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Hurricane Irma is bearing down on Florida. It's been downgraded to a Category 4 storm, which is still awfully big. Evacuation orders are in place. But Bill South at the National Weather Service office in Key West says he and his team will ride out the storm in their hurricane-resistant building.
BILL SOUTH: It's actually part of our duty to be here to protect the lives and property of American people. That's our mission, our No. 1 goal in what we do as meteorologists working for the National Weather Service.
KELLY: And for a storm this size, Bill South says it is all hands on deck.
SOUTH: I did get my wife out of town today - mandatory evacuation. And it's becoming a ghost town. I think people are taking this one very seriously.
KELLY: The thing is, Florida sees more storms than perhaps any other state. And yet, people still move there. To talk more about the pull of this cursed paradise, we've called Michael Grunwald. He wrote a book called "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida And The Politics Of Paradise."
Good morning, Mike.
MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Hey. How you doing?
KELLY: I'm OK. So I want to ask how you are doing. You live in Miami, but I gather you fled to your in-laws' in Orlando. Can you paint us a picture of what it's like waking up down there in Florida today?
GRUNWALD: Well, it's dark, and it's nice.
GRUNWALD: You know, it's the - I think somebody maybe called it the calm before the storm.
KELLY: Yeah. It's a phrase that's been coined.
KELLY: How was that drive from Miami to Orlando?
GRUNWALD: You know, it wasn't that bad. I think just about everybody's getting out of Dodge, yeah.
KELLY: Well, we talked about - I mentioned the pull of this cursed paradise. Sell me on the allure of living in Miami, a place where you know you're going to get walloped by storms every so often. And if the storms don't get you, climate change and rising sea levels will.
GRUNWALD: Well, look, it's funny. You know, South Florida really was America's last frontier. It was - you know, long after the West was settled and civilized, it was basically empty. The 1880 census of - for Dade County, which then was just about all of South Florida, was 257. This is at a time there were already more than a million people living in Manhattan. So it used to be considered absurd that anybody would live in this kind of watery wasteland. I mean, it was just a mess. And it was too wet, and it was too vulnerable to floods and storms.
But then we got water control (laughter) after World War II. And people talk about air conditioning or bug spray or Social Security, but it was really water control that made South Florida so awesome. And look, it is awesome. You know, it's a lot better than Buffalo or Cleveland in the winter. And for a totally different reason, it's a lot nicer than Havana or Caracas all year long. It's a great place to live. And because of this modern technology where we pretty much grabbed ahold of every drop of water that falls on the region, it's a pretty safe place to live - except when it isn't.
KELLY: Except for today.
GRUNWALD: (Laughter) Exactly.
GRUNWALD: And it's easy to forget, you know. We haven't had one of these in 25 years. And most of the people who...
KELLY: Since Hurricane Andrew, yeah.
GRUNWALD: Yeah. And most of the people who live in Miami today - they weren't even here, including me.
KELLY: Is it just built into the mentality, into the soul of your city - a storm is going to come along every so often and we're going to have to rebuild and that just is what it is.
GRUNWALD: I think it's probably not even built into - you know, we just don't think about it. Look - 1926, a hurricane wiped out Miami. And then in 1928, a hurricane blasted Lake Okeechobee through its dike and pretty much wiped out South Florida. It killed 2,500 people in an area where now we've got a hundred times more people living than were living there a century ago. So...
KELLY: Well, Michael Grunwald, we wish you luck riding out - we wish you luck riding out this storm.
GRUNWALD: Thanks so much.
KELLY: That's Mike Grunwald, senior writer for Politico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.