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Real Florida: Our boast is toast

photo
[Times photo: James Borchuck 2001]
Lightning slams from the sky over St. Petersburg’s Pier. Its cracks once ignited Floridians’ claims to be the world’s lightning capital. No more.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2002


Florida, the lightning capital of the world? This Florida fact fizzles to fable.

Irritating scientists have done it again, stripping Florida of what we thought was a God-given bragging right.

This time it's the eggheads at NASA, telling us that Florida is no longer the "lightning capital of the world."

Bummer.

Rwanda, a country in Central Africa, has been dubbed the most dangerous place on the planet to cavort outdoors. Scientists say space satellite sensors, spying on the globe below, don't lie.

Rwanda experiences a whopping 82.7 lightning flashes per square kilometer. We receive a puny 35.4. NASA scientists say Florida still boasts the most lightning-scorched landscape in North America. Big, stinkin' deal. Of course we do.

For years we felt mighty special. During summer, during the late afternoon when the clouds built up, we knew in our hearts and bones that our state was the world's most dangerous place to be caught in a boat or on the golf course.

Sure, dwellers in other countries worried about encounters with mamba snakes and salivating tigers. But we Floridians always could tell them: "Your chances of being hit by lightning in Florida are greater than getting nipped by a critter."

Now I guess we have to tell the truth. "Well, your chances are greater in Rwanda."

I hate it when the facts get in the way of a good story.

For years, I bragged that the Snake Bight Trail in Everglades National Park had to be the most mosquito-infested place on Earth. It's bad, a pompous entomologist admitted, real bad, certainly the worst place in Florida. But it ain't the worst place in the United States, he went on. Try a rice paddy in Arkansas on a humid night, buddy. I came close to giving up mosquito repellent.

Humility, Florida, is thy middle name.

Most of us who have lived here for a while have a million cockroach stories. Here's my favorite: My Austrian-born grandmother used to winter with us in Miami when I was a boy. Before sleep, she always poured herself a big glass of grapefruit juice and kept it on her bedside table just in case she woke with a dry mouth during the night.

One morning she roused the household with terrified shrieks.

"THE BUUUUCKS!" she cried. "IT'S THE BUUCK."

My father tried to calm her down and find out what a "buck" was. It wasn't Austrian for a dollar bill. A buck was something creepy and crawly that had drowned in her glass of juice. At dawn, she'd gotten a palmetto bug mouthful.

She vowed to board the next train for Chicago, her snowy hometown.

My father persuaded her to stay. He told her how brave she was, visiting the state that had the largest cockroaches in the world. She stopped whimpering.

I picked up on the roach story. After all, my dad had told it, and dads never lie. Florida, without a doubt, I told people with authority, undoubtedly has the biggest, baddest roaches in the world. But years later I was shocked and more than disappointed to learn that Madagascar has roaches even larger. Madagascar roaches even hiss. Yes, Florida roaches can fly, often directly at a human mouth yawned open for a scream. But our winged monsters are mute.

Again, we are second best.

I think our last ace in the hole, our last reason to brag, is going to have to be filed in the cabinet we call "Jaws."

Last year scientists reported 76 unprovoked attacks by sharks on humans worldwide. The United States had the most, 55. Of those, Florida had 38.

So Florida, it can be said with accuracy, is the shark-attack capital of the world.

However, the scientist who runs the International Shark Attack File keeps trying to put that fact into perspective.

We lead the world in shark attacks, he claims, because we have more people sharing the water with sharks at any given time. It's like that guy who was asked why he robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is" was his reply.

Call me a pessimist, but I know sooner or later my scientist friend is going to find a way to ruin our shark-attack bragging rights. Maybe he knows the folks at NASA.

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