Florida 25th District
An interconnected sea of wetlands once covered 8.9 million acres of southern Florida, stretching from present-day Orlando to the peninsula’s southern tip. It was once a coherent ecosystem, a “river of grass” in which water moved slowly down a gentle slope to the ocean. It buffered plants and animals from meteorological extremes and provided different micro-environments for flora and fauna based on an inch or two of variation in elevation. It was long a dream of Florida’s white settlers to make it more useful, but for decades, this goal proved elusive. It took three attempts between 1915 and the late 1920s to build the Tamiami Trail from Miami to Tampa. To this day, it is one of only two roads that cross the South Florida interior from coast to coast. Over time, people managed to reshape the Everglades. In 1948, Congress approved the Central and South Florida Project, which authorized the construction of 1,000 miles of canals and 720 miles of levees to channel and drain the Everglades. Since then, about half of the original ecosystem has been turned over to agriculture and housing, and the amount of water discharged into the ocean has fallen by 70%.
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In recent years, Floridians have had second thoughts about taming the Everglades. In 2000, Congress passed a law to restore the land in 16 counties, authorizing $7.8 billion over 30 years. In 2002, President George W. Bush and his brother Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, signed an agreement to proceed. After a slow start, initial steps have included a huge storage reservoir and a safety valve to protect Lake Okeechobee and its dikes. In December 2008, the South Florida Water Management District approved Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s proposal to buy much of the land owned by U.S. Sugar Corp. around Lake Okeechobee for $1.35 billion, with most farming to be phased out within seven years. That would allow water to pass over land from the lake, through the Everglades, to the Gulf of Mexico. But the recession forced Crist to scale back the project to $533 million, with a 10-year option to buy the remaining acreage.
The 25th Congressional District of Florida sprawls almost all the way across this uninhabitable portion of South Florida, connecting population centers near, but not on, each of Florida’s two coasts. About 13% of its residents live in Collier County, in new housing wedged between decidedly upscale and artsy Naples and the wild Everglades, and in the farm town of Immokalee, where an estimated 80% of workers are illegal aliens. The large majority of the district’s residents live on the western and southern edges of metropolitan Miami, mostly close to the swamps. Here one can drive out on roads past the subdivisions and find strawberry, tomato, and citrus farms. The trees thin out, and then the road just ends where the Everglades begin.
The towns in the northern part of Miami-Dade are heavily Cuban and Latino—Hialeah Gardens, Tamiami, Kendale Lakes, South Miami Heights and Cutler Ridge. Farther south, the 25th takes in low-income agricultural areas along South Dixie Highway (U.S. 1), like Princeton and Naranja, as well as a few older tourist attractions like the Metrozoo, the Monkey Jungle and Coral Castle. Even further south is Homestead, which was leveled by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and has since been redeveloped with housing, shops, hospitals, parks and schools, plus a Coast Guard base. NASCAR has an annual race at the speedway. By 2007, Homestead was the fastest-growing town in Florida, with large Mexican and Cuban populations. Politically, this area leans Republican, thanks to the allegiance of its many Cuban Americans, though this is the least Cuban of the three South Florida districts that have Hispanic majorities.