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States of Denial

From crop failures to killer storms, Trump's Southern supporters are paying the price.

Freddy Bell, a peanut farmer in Levy County, Florida, doesn’t believe humans cause global warming—even as his harvest has been decimated by years of drought and extreme heat.

Early in the summer of 1991, the conservation biologist Jack Putz received a peculiar call from the owner of a vacation home out in Yankeetown, a village on the Gulf Coast of Florida. According to the caller, there was something wrong with the cabbage palms on his property.

“They’re sick, you mean?” Putz asked.

“No,” the man replied. “They’re dead.”

Putz, a young associate professor at the University of Florida in nearby Gainesville, was accustomed to local residents ringing him at all hours of the day. As an academic at a state institution, it was a hazard of the trade. “Most of the time,” he recalls, “you just listened, and redirected the person to someone else.” But this call resonated with him. A few months earlier, he’d returned from a research trip to Malaysia, where he’d seen firsthand the deleterious effects that climate change could have on a sensitive ecosystem. Even a quarter-century ago, it was clear that something big and dangerous was happening all over the world. Perhaps the dead palm trees in Yankeetown represented another clue. Putz agreed to visit the man, arranging for two colleagues, a tree pathologist and a swamp specialist, to join him.

The drive from Gainesville to Yankeetown takes less than two hours, traffic permitting, but one might as well be traveling from one country to another. Gainesville is densely populated—built in concentric circles of strip-mall sprawl. Yankeetown, by contrast, is kaleidoscopically, violently wild. Located in Levy County, on the 220-mile Big Bend of the Gulf Coast—the longest stretch of undeveloped shoreline in the continental United States—it is a place of undulant seagrass and crooked timber, of pelicans and ruby-throated hummingbirds. The winters are mild; the summers are prehistoric-jungle hot, with a humidity that envelops the county like a drenched quilt.

Putz and his team found the right home without much trouble. It was modern and dun-colored and parked on 400 acres of salt marshland. The owner, a plastic surgeon who lived most of the year in Orlando, gave them a tour. Putz saw immediately that the damage was much worse than the man realized. It wasn’t just the cabbage palms—famously durable trees that grow across the Southeast—that were withered and desiccated. It was the tall, proud red cedars, too. “The tree pathologist and I had a talk, and we figured that there were no diseases that would kill both trees,” Putz recalls. “It was obvious to both of us that something else was going on here.”

To size up the extent of the damage, the scientists used a helicopter for an aerial tour of the coast. “As we flew up and down the Big Bend, we could see this band of dead trees, always fringing a salt marsh,” Putz says. “And so we thought, ‘Hey, maybe that has something to do with it: the salinity levels, the proximity to the Gulf.’ And that’s how all this research got started.”

Rising salinity levels in the waters near Yankeetown have killed off acres of trees and other vegetation, turning vibrant wetlands into a salt marsh.
Photograph by Ben Depp for the New Republic

What began that day in Yankeetown evolved into one of the lengthiest active investigations into the effects of climate change ever undertaken in the United States. For the past 25 years, Putz and a cadre of scientists have shuttled between the university and a handful of sites in Levy County, measuring the creep of the tide, the types of vegetation growing along the Gulf, and the salinity of the water. The findings were as unambiguous as they were startling: A dramatic spike in the salinity of the water—which has been conclusively linked to global warming—was killing acres of trees. The rates of mortality among cabbage palms and red cedars was soaring; new vegetation, better suited to salt, was springing up in their place. “We could see how fast it was happening,” Putz says. “In these relatively short periods of time, we could see whole patches of forest on the coast, full of all these different species of plant life, become salt marsh.”

In a peer-reviewed paper published in September, a colleague of Putz’s, Amy Langston, reported that tidal flooding on Levy County’s coast has more than doubled since 1992. Some of the nearby islands are now continually swamped; on others, a single live tree remains, alone in a cemetery of timber. “If the rate of sea-level rise continues increasing,” Langston warns, “even healthy stands will be replaced by salt-tolerant communities, potentially within a matter of decades. Forest islands, unique to a small portion of the coastal network of the United States, will completely disappear.”

Over time, the water will almost certainly keep rising. At first, it will chew at the fringes of Yankeetown, leaving the downtown intact. Tourists will continue to flock to the area to fish and kayak. Then one day in the future, whether in fits and starts or propelled by a Category 5 hurricane, the ocean will roar past the marina and the town hall annex and the shed that houses the volunteer fire department, and all of Yankeetown will slip permanently under the surface of the sea.

We tend to think of climate change as a vast and monolithic force: a threat that will affect all corners of the globe equally, eventually rendering the entire planet uninhabitable. If current scientific projections are any indication, that may well happen in a century or two. But in the meantime, the impact of climate change will be geographically uneven. Some of us are going to be hit earlier, harder, and at a much greater cost than others.

In a new paper published in June in the journal Science, a team of economists and public policy analysts, incorporating a wide range of climate-modeling data, quantified the economic damage that climate change could wreak on the United States in the years to come. What they found was a clear bifurcation: In the North and West, agricultural yields will stay more or less constant, as will energy expenditures and direct damage from storms. The South and Southeast—the region stretching from South Carolina down through Georgia and Florida and out to Texas—are another matter. The electrical grid will be overwhelmed by an increased need for air conditioners. Crops will wither and die. Heat-related illnesses and deaths will soar: By the end of this century, the study predicts, mortality rates in parts of the South could surge dramatically.

What the heat doesn’t harm, the storms will. Exacerbated by warming waters, cyclones and hurricanes will pummel the shorelines. Picture Texas after Harvey—the wide Houston boulevards converted to canals, the confused horses wading through the blue-gray floodwater, the shudder of explosions at the flooded chemical plant, the three-year-old girl who was found by rescue teams clinging to her mother’s drowned corpse. Now picture the same scenes playing out in city after city, several times a year. Billions will be spent on relief, rebuilding, and prevention efforts. In the space of a decade, according to the Science study, direct damage from storms may cost many Southern counties at least 10 percent of their GDP—annually. By the last years of this century, an unprecedented redistribution of wealth could take place, as climate refugees flee north. “People living in the South are going to be much poorer, and people in the North are going to be much richer,” says Solomon Hsiang, the lead researcher on the study. “That will lead to a widening of inequality. In essence, one group will get a big boost.”

Hsiang stresses to me that he is not in the business of politics. “As researchers,” he says, “our aim is to get people to understand what’s coming down the road. We provide the information, and society looks at it, and discusses it, and makes a decision on how to move forward as a country.” Still, one does not have to be a policy analyst to see the contradictions raised by Hsiang’s work: The counties marked in red on his map—those that will pay the highest price for climate change—are also the deepest red politically. In locations ranging from the tiny coastal towns of South Carolina to the sprawling suburbs of Arizona, those who support Donald Trump are the very Americans who will be hurt the most by his climate denial. In Levy County, according to the Science study, residents could lose more than 28 percent of their GDP to global warming every year—one of the highest rates in the nation. Last November, 71 percent of those same residents cast a ballot for Trump.

Nowhere is this “red-red” paradox more pronounced than in Florida, a hurricane-prone state with a Republican legislature and a staunchly conservative governor. Although Rick Scott likes to frame himself as a defender of the environment, his administration has ordered staff at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection not to use the terms “global warming” or “climate change” in official communications. Scott declared as recently as 2011, in fact, that he does not believe in man-made climate change. He has since taken to telling reporters that he “is not a scientist,” a sly riposte so popular among Republicans that it has its own Wikipedia page. (Mitch McConnell, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio have all used the line at one time or another.)

Republicans like Scott know how to cater to their base: Polls show that just 15 percent of Republicans believe that humans are responsible for climate change, compared to 79 percent of Democrats. If conservatives are aware of the scientific consensus, they simply dismiss it as some sort of conspiracy by liberal elites, turning to a steady diet of right-leaning media for reassurance. “In the official meteorological circles, you have an abundance of people who believe that man-made climate change is real,” Rush Limbaugh, a resident of Florida, scoffed in September. “And they believe that Al Gore is correct when he has written—and he couldn’t be more wrong—that climate change is creating more hurricanes and stronger hurricanes.” One week later, the strongest hurricane ever recorded swept across the Atlantic and slammed into Florida, putting more than 90,000 people in shelters, and knocking out electricity to nearly two-thirds of the state.

Levy County—locals pronounce it lee-vee—is named after David Levy Yulee, a railroad man and slave owner of Sephardic Moroccan origin, who in 1845 became the first Jew to serve in the United States Senate. The area is sparsely populated (roughly 40,000 people), relatively poor (per capita income hovers around $20,000), and geographically bifurcated. Inland, along a phalanx of rippled hills, residents tend cattle or raise timber and legumes; the farm town of Williston, near the center of the county, hosts a popular Peanut Festival each year, complete with a contest to crown a Little Peanut King and Queen and Baby Peanut. But nearer the coast, in small villages like Yankeetown, the main trade is in tourism and shellfish.

One afternoon in late August, as the sun is setting over the Gulf, I follow Route 24 out to a place called Cedar Key, the center of the county’s oyster and clam operations. Connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge, the island is less than a mile across, and surrounded on three sides by apparently endless shallow sea. In the four-square-block downtown, the buildings are salt-flecked, their flanks bowed from years of moisture. A sign outside the Eagles Lodge advertises a “We Survived Hermine Party,” a reference to last year’s hurricane that swamped the town, nearly destroyed the only grocery store, burst into restaurants on the pier, and caused about $10 million in damage.

This afternoon, the Marathon gas station is bustling, full of locals making their end-of-day beer run. In a fishing town, people talk about the ocean the way farmers keep tabs on the rain. At the register, a clam farmer named Troy regales me with a story about how he had almost burned the skin off his ankles in the ocean the other day. “It was like you was over in Daytona, with the 92 degree water,” says Troy, who’s wearing jeans and a loose-necked camouflage T-shirt. “It’s like you put Epsom salt in your tub and got in it.” And hot water, he adds, isn’t good for the clams. “When the heat and the freshwater from the storms combine, it’s trouble,” he explains. “Everyone out here, in the spring, I bet they lost 15 to 20 percent of their business.”

The next morning at seven-thirty, I head down to the marina to board a clamming boat captained by Ed Stokes, an employee of the shellfish company Southern Cross. Stokes, who is in his early sixties, has silver hair and creased skin the texture of hardened resin. Since graduating from high school, he’s had all sorts of jobs: contractor, photographer, captain of a charter fishing boat. But he’d fallen in love with the freedom of farming shellfish, the small joys it affords him. Holding the wheel with one hand, he jams a Marlboro in his mouth and holds out his phone for me to inspect. On the screen is an image that looks like a garish abstract painting: a sprawl of cotton-candy pastels and burnt blacks.

“That’s a sunset!” Stokes shouts above the motor roar. “No filter!”

The boat scuds out across the Gulf and veers west toward the horizon. After 15 minutes, the two junior members of the crew, Tim Beville and Bryan Holm, holler for Stokes to slow down: We are drawing close to the lease. Last year, Stokes explains, Southern Cross deposited hundreds of spats—young clams—on the ocean floor, draping them in a nylon bag to keep away fish and crabs. Now the clams are ready to be retrieved. For the next hour, Stokes mans a winch, bringing up the dripping and encrusted bags for Holm to spray free of debris. After the clams are clean, Beville stacks the bags amidships, one after another, distributing the weight so the boat won’t tack. The haul today is 80 bags, hard and straining work. Once the last bag is on board, Holm leaps into the sea to rinse off.

Ed Stokes and his crew harvest shellfish off Cedar Key, Florida, where wild oyster reefs have plunged by two-thirds.

Around us churn a handful of boats, some affiliated with Southern Cross, others run by competitors. Even as Levy County begins to feel the effects of climate change, the clam business is likely to remain in good shape: Rising seas won’t harm the leases, and flooding is likely to claim Cedar Key before it destroys the area’s booming business in farmed clams and oysters. But the same can’t be said for wild oysters, which have long been a major industry on the Big Bend. “What we’re seeing with wild oysters is just a tremendous, frightening decline,” says Peter Frederick, an ecologist at the University of Florida who has been harvesting oysters on a recreational basis for years. Twenty years ago, he began noticing a substantial dip in the local oyster population. “One of the most mysterious things about oysters, once they die, their shells disappear quickly,” he says. “And I’d get out to these places where there’d once been a lot of oysters, and there were just big holes blown in the reefs. Just mud.” According to one study, oyster reefs in the Big Bend have declined by 66 percent since the 1980s. A massive die-off is underway.

Together with Bill Pine, another scientist at the University of Florida, Frederick conducted a series of field studies. The problem, they concluded, lay with the saltiness of the water: The oysters in this region need a very specific grade of salinity to thrive, a balance historically achieved on the Big Bend by the mixture of the salty Gulf and the freshwater discharge from the rivers and streams that spill into it. But now the discharge is decreasing, an issue Frederick attributes to increased water usage by inland farmers and residents, as well as drought conditions across the state. “It’s a pie,” he says. “Less rainfall takes away some of the pie, and increased water usage takes away more.” At the end, all the wild oysters are left with is a tiny sliver of the freshwater they need to survive.

Frederick and his colleagues were recently awarded an $8.3 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help rebuild the reefs off the shore of Cedar Key, to protect the oysters. But increasing salinity of the water throughout the region has set off a chain reaction: In recent years, harvesters from other bays have encountered the same die-off, and have started to poach from the waters of Cedar Key. As climate change kills off the oysters, everyone is fighting over the few that remain. “You’ve got arguments over harvests, you’ve got young guys going up into the creeks trying to find more oysters—the old rules are going out the window,” Frederick says. “It’s a Wild West situation, and it’s difficult for everyone.”

Crisscrossing Levy County, I repeatedly hear an argument I take to calling the Cycle Theory. There are variations, but generally, the Cycle Theory goes something like this: The climate may be changing. But people don’t have anything to do with it. And sooner or later, things will swing back around again, I promise—just give it a little time.

The appeal of the logic is hard to deny: If climate change isn’t influenced by man, then there is no need to alter your daily habits or routines. The weather changes naturally, so at some point it will change back naturally. There’s no need to curb carbon emissions or reduce water usage or submit to the kind of regulations that you, as a conservative Trump supporter, are constitutionally inclined to view as “government overreach.”

Even as the residents of Levy County grapple with the very real and costly effects of climate change on a daily basis, they cling ever more fiercely to the Cycle Theory. Freddy Bell, a 76-year-old peanut farmer in Williston, traces his roots in the area all the way back to the mid-nineteenth century, around the time Florida achieved statehood. “My people came down from the Carolinas,” he tells me one afternoon. “Florida is where the money and the land were.” When Bell was growing up, his father and mother managed a small plot of peanuts, just a few acres, that were harvested and fed directly to their hogs. Bell studied to be a mechanic, and took a job in a local repair shop after high school. But he was growing vegetables on the side, and in 1970, married with a couple of kids, he decided he was better with the crops than he was with the machines.

“I’m living proof you can start from absolutely nothing and succeed if you just make up your mind,” Bell says. “I know you won’t believe this, but the day I quit my job, I had $62 in my pocket. One week’s pay.”

The early years were lean. Bell grew everything he could, warehousing the stuff in rusted sheds. Gradually, he narrowed his focus. Peanuts were where the real money was—the legumes were well suited to the county’s damp soil and they didn’t require much fussing. You planted them in the spring, harvested them a few months later, and sent them off to Georgia to be shelled. Every year, the crop got bigger. Bell bought more land. Today he owns 6,500 acres, more than the bottom third of the island of Manhattan.

A new study in Science quantified a starkly inconvenient truth: Climate change is going to hit some parts of America far harder than others. By 2099, according to the study, 601 counties could lose at least 10 percent of their GDP to global warming through loss of jobs, soaring energy costs, and rising mortality rates. In a cruel twist, the counties marked as deep-red hot spots for climate damage are also the reddest when it comes to politics: All but 107 of them voted for Trump over Clinton. One of the hardest hit will be Levy County, Florida, where climate-related deaths are projected to rise eight times faster than the national average. Climate denial may play at the polls, but it will cost Trump voters dearly in the long run.

Spitting a chunk of Red Man tobacco on the ground, Bell leads me into the warehouse he constructed not long ago to hold his crop. The structure, which cost $3 million to build, is the size of a commercial airplane hangar. At its peak, Bell’s peanut harvest was 12 tons per year, enough to fill the warehouse and then some. Today the building is almost empty. Over the past few years, Levy County has grown sharply hotter and drier. This spring, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, two-thirds of Florida experienced a drop in rainfall, with many towns suffering from extreme drought, a condition characterized by major crop losses and widespread water shortages. “For growing peanuts, you want rain,” Bell explains. “They need an inch of water a week.” Without it, the crop winds up being much, much smaller than normal. “The heat hurts, too,” Bell adds.

As we walk back outside, Bell pulls the bill of his hat further down on his head. The afternoon sun is ferocious. Anticipating my question, Bell dismisses global warming before I can even raise the subject. “Now, I don’t want you to think that I don’t believe in climate change somewhat,” he says. “But to me it’s nothing like they want to make out.”

I remind him what he has just said about the heat. “Yes,” he concedes, “but it’s a natural occurrence as far as I’m concerned, over a period of years. I bet if you look back in history, it was hotter in 1900 than it is now.” His peanut crop may be roasting in the midst of a brutal drought, but there’s nothing to worry about. It’s all explained by the Cycle Theory. Since there’s no man-made cause at work—no way, in short, to slow or stop climate change—Bell contents himself with adapting to what he sees as the normal vicissitudes of nature. For now, he has converted some of his peanut pasture for use by a few hundred head of cattle, trying to make up for his lost income. He hasn’t come this far to give up what he built, or to abandon land that has been in his family for centuries.

Later that day, I stop for a drink at a nearby canteen. Gunsmoke is playing on the television; the darkened bar is busy with contractors on their way back from Gainesville. Outside, at a motel across the street, sit two men. The older one identifies himself as Dan. He manages the motel’s 16 units, many of which are occupied by long-term tenants.

“Where do the tenants come from?” I ask.

“They’re local people on disability,” Dan replies. “And they’re getting like $800 a month. So they come here for $400 in rent, and all their electricity and cable and trash and stuff, it’s all paid for. It’s a deal.”

Dan’s friend is named Shawn. His arms are laced with elaborate tattoos, and he wears a pentagram around his neck. He makes his living as a short-order cook and uses his weekly paycheck of $300 to support his wife, his wife’s parents, and his three small children. As convicted felons, neither Shawn nor Dan can vote. But they don’t have much use for politics anyway. “Politicians don’t give a shit about us,” Shawn says, “and so we don’t give a shit about them.”

Dan recalls, with approval, a story he recently saw on Fox News. “That Paris thing,” he says, referring to the international climate accord that sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Trump got us out of that, and I think that’s good. It was really smart.”

Shawn nods. “I mean, why are you asking ordinary Americans, working Americans, to do something that people in China won’t?” he says. “In my mind, it’s making me pay for a problem that no one can fix.”

That, in a nutshell, is how many residents in Levy County see it: Even if climate change is real, it can’t be solved. And even if it could be solved, it would only result in a bunch of foreigners getting rich off the backs of hardworking Americans.

Bronson, the seat of Levy County, is a town of Spanish-moss-draped oaks and aging churches. The business district is clustered around the intersection of East Hathaway Avenue and Route 24, which connects directly with Gainesville. The local court and the offices of the county commissioner sit nearby, flanked by a massive relief of the Ten Commandments.

“We’re being sued for that,” says Wilbur Dean, the county coordinator, reclining in a chair in his office. The pride is evident in his voice: The lawsuit was filed by a local atheist group; Dean is rooting for it to fail. “To me,” he explains, the Ten Commandments “say a lot about the values that America originated from, if you get me.”

Dean is tall and affable, with grayish-white hair he wears swept across his head. A seventh-generation resident of Levy County, he started off as a farmer and still keeps almost 100 head of cattle and a pine tree farm. “But that’s just messing around,” he says. There’s nowhere in the world, he adds, where he would rather have grown up. “This is a rural area,” he says, his gaze wandering to a display case of fishing lures he built himself. “An area with very independent people who are very set on home rule. The people here, we’re just against the state or the feds interfering.”

Historically, Dean points out, Levy did not always sway red: Up until 2012, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans. But things changed during the Obama administration, when many residents of Levy found themselves at the receiving end of what they saw as government overreach. “You had things like regulations on surface water treatment,” Dean says, “on farming and fishing. And that just wasn’t accepted very well.” Last year, eight in ten voters in the county cast their ballots for Trump. And those voters made their distaste for government regulations clear.

County Coordinator Wilbur Dean, a seventh-generation Levy resident, disputes climate science and considers federal environmental regulations to be “overreach.”

Did that distaste extend to laws that would combat climate change? Dean flashes me a wry smile. It was a smile that said, I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not going to let you condescend to me. “Look,” he says, “I accept that there’s erosion happening. I accept that there’s some drought.” But the science hasn’t been established to his satisfaction. “You know, in the 1970s, they were saying it was fixing to be an Ice Age.” (Forty years ago, a small number of scientists did forecast global cooling, but that theory had nowhere near the consensus that global warming does today.)

Why act on a wild theory? As far as Dean is concerned, the local economy is on the upswing. Undeterred by the threat of hurricanes and the decline in local fisheries and the empty peanut warehouses, people are building more houses in Levy County. “We’re not exactly seeing as many as I’d like,” Dean says. “But after the 2008 recession, new businesses are opening, older businesses are expanding. People are spending money again on homes.”

Dean stands up. It’s a Monday, and there’s a line of residents waiting outside his office to speak with him. But if I want more, he tells me, I could try John Meeks, the chair of the Levy County board of commissioners: “He’ll talk your ear off.”

I find Meeks in the back room of the local Ace Hardware, where he works as a floor manager. He had run for office in 2008, as a Democrat. “I actually got defeated,” he laughs. In 2011, he switched parties, and “the man who defeated me, he got indicted by a grand jury for bribery, so here I am.”

Meeks has a good handle on the climate-related threats facing Levy County. “Seems like when I was a kid, in the summer it rained at least every other day in the afternoon,” he says. “It would get hot and rain and that kind of cooled things off, and it would be humid.” Now the periods of drought routinely last, unbroken, for weeks on end. Meeks is eager to meet the threat head-on: Under his watch, Levy County has joined Resiliency Florida, a statewide conservation network, and he has taken part in a conference call with the group. “I’m interested in hearing what they have to say,” he says. “Because there’s money out there, there’s grants out there, there’s technology we can use in Levy.” He also supported a law passed by the state legislature last year that requires Florida’s environmental regulators to monitor and shield natural spring waters from pollutants. “That was a prime example of a policy that was designed to protect what you’re trying to protect,” Meeks says, “but while still not handcuffing private citizens and businesses from being able to do what they need to do.”

The problem with climate change, he argues, is that the conversation about its causes has gotten so damn politicized, it’s hard for him to separate the reality from the politics. “These stories, are you telling me them because they’re true, or because they further your agenda?” Meeks says. “I had this friend, and he told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘Figures don’t lie, but sometimes liars do the figuring.’ ”

What Meeks fears most is “overreach.” “The thing that drives me nuts is when someone moves into an area and sets about trying to change it,” he says. “See that bar over there? It would be like if someone moved next door to that bar, and then complained the bar was open too late. Well, it’s a bar. Bars stay open late. Don’t come here and try to change things to the way you want them. Don’t come here and regulate the hell out of us. When you overregulate, you put our businesses at a competitive disadvantage.”

The days I spend in Levy County run concurrent to the arrival of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, and everywhere I go, in bars and restaurants and hotel lobbies, images of the destruction play out on a continuous, muted loop. Most locals are deeply sympathetic. They’ve been through bad hurricanes before; they’ve learned to appreciate the violence such storms can wreak. And they understand that sooner or later, if they stay in Florida, they’ll be smacked again, whether it’s an oblique hit, as was the case with the electric-grid-crippling Irma, or something direct and much more devastating.

On my last day, I drive out to Yankeetown, to visit the salt marshes that ignited Jack Putz’s interest in the Big Bend decades earlier. In late 2002, the mansion owned by the plastic surgeon who called Putz had been sold back to the county, which converted it into a visitors center for the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve, a 413-acre parcel of undeveloped wetlands. On this particular day there are no visitors—but that’s probably because the heat is so brutal: It’s a heavy and relentless thing that weighs on your shoulders, a breeze-free torridity that the mosquitoes and black flies seem to find pleasant. Every few moments I feel a new bug bite into my flesh. Or maybe it’s just the same bug, refueling. It’s difficult to tell.

Together with Kent Gardner, a volunteer at the preserve, I climb to the top of a wooden observation post overlooking the marsh. From that height, I can see the islands of dead trees that have been studied for so many years by Putz and the scientists who followed in his footsteps. The sun has bleached the trunks to a bony, gnarled white. In recent years, a team led by David Kaplan, an environmental engineer from the University of Florida, has been monitoring an incursion of a new type of plant: The mangrove, which traditionally grows much further south, appeared to be making its way up the Gulf as a result of the overheating climate.

Kent Gardner volunteers at the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve, documenting changes to the wetlands.

The link between climate change and hurricane frequency has not been firmly established by scientists, but rising seas and scorching heat seem to worsen the damage the storms incur. Standing on the observation post, looking at the miles of flat, shallow marshes, I can’t help but think how little stands between Yankeetown and disaster.

“With Hermine, quite a few people here lost their houses,” Gardner recalls. And Hermine was a Category 1 storm. With a bigger and more destructive hurricane—like Harvey (Category 4) or Irma (Category 5)—the damage in Levy County could be catastrophic. “We’d be more or less flattened,” Gardner says.

A native of California, Gardner used to create digital content for colleges and textbook companies. A few years ago, he moved down to Yankeetown with his wife to care for his mother-in-law. Now he spends his time capturing footage for what he calls a “virtual preserve”—an interactive web site that will allow users to navigate through imagery of the area and click on icons to learn about native flora and fauna. In that way, the digital ghost of Yankeetown will survive long after the tides wash it away.

Gardner hefts his tripod and camera and leads me out to a nearby stream. In the sand, fiddler crabs are busy digging thousands of holes, depositing the leftover dirt into small piles. The ground seethes; it is alive.

While we walk, I mention the Cycle Theory I’ve been hearing from other residents of Levy County—the palpable fear of government regulation and federal intervention, the fact that this hugely vulnerable region is, in so many ways, resistant to the only type of intervention that might ultimately save it. Gardner nods. Climate change doesn’t come up that much in conversation here. “What’s disheartening is a lot of these folks are investing in a party, in politicians, that if anything are going to make their lives worse,” he says. “They’re voting against their own interests.”

And so Gardner focuses on his volunteer work, on the preservation of this little undeveloped parcel of wetlands along the coast. You can’t change everyone’s minds, so you do what you can, for as long as you can do it, and hope you made a difference. In the meantime, Donald Trump and Rick Scott and all the other climate deniers in the Republican Party will continue to make things as easy as possible for America’s big polluters and developers, hastening the storm to come. And when it arrives, it will descend first, and most brutally, on the residents of Yankeetown and all the other “red-red” counties across the South who have placed their faith in the president.

After saying goodbye to Gardner, I climb in my car and drive back along the sinuous dirt track, toward the paved road that bisects Yankeetown. Near the gates of the preserve, I spot a sign that was invisible to me on my way in. Its tone is plaintive, pleading: please tell your friends.