Four Feet High
The ‘What Ifs’ Of Hurricane Fiona
By Chris Oakley
(Adapted from material originally posted at the Alternatehistory.com message boards)
Summary: In Part 1 of this series we looked at Hurricane Fiona and its aftermath and sketched out a possible scenario for what might have happened if a certain video hadn’t derailed Texas governor Evan Hidalgo’s bid for a second term. In this chapter we’ll see what the consequences might have been if the original predictions about Fiona hitting the Florida coast instead of Texas had turned out to be right.
South Florida has always been a hotbed of racial, political, and social tensions, but in the summer of 2028 things were particularly tense given that its beaches and cities were packed to the brim with Cuban refugees looking to escape the hellhole that post-Castro Cuba had become. Without Fidel in charge to manipulate Cuba’s domestic media into showing only the rosiest possible picture of life in that island nation, the true picture of Cuban society was finally beginning to see the light for most people-- and it wasn’t pretty. In both a literal and figurative sense, the country had been falling apart for decades, but few realized just how deep the internal rot went until Fidel Castro succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage in 2008.
His death, and the subsequent assassination of his brother Raul in 2014, brought to light thousands of pages of secret documents that revealed the extent to which the Castro regime had suppressed human rights in Cuba. The reaction of the Cuban masses to these disclosures was swift and angry; outrage over the Castro regime’s atrocities morphed into mass protest which, often as not, turned into riots. Desperate to escape the carnage, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled across the Florida Straits in an exodus which dwarfed even the Mariel boatlift of 1980.
When Hurricane Fiona exited Cuba and began charting its own path across the Florida Straits, many feared that once it hit Florida’s southern tip it would become the catalyst for a new wave of ethnic and social unrest as the storm drove refugees from the shelters where they were staying. There were long and raucous debates over what should be done about relocating them-- debates which only ended when Fiona made its fateful turn toward the Gulf of Mexico.
But suppose for just a minute that those early predictions about Fiona making landfall on the Florida coasts had proved true? Let’s see how that changes the equation...
It’s early afternoon on June 18th, 2028. At the White House President Murchison is meeting with his top emergency management officials and science advisors; the National Weather Service has just confirmed in the last half-hour that Hurricane Fiona, which has already devastated Haiti, Cuba, and a number of other Caribbean islands, is on track to make landfall on the southern coast of Florida within the next 36-48 hours.
Murchinson immediately asks for a more precise location on where the storm will hit; NOAA chairman Victor Hudson points him to a computer map which indicates the approximate point of landfall to be somewhere in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral. This not only endangers critical NASA launch facilities, but also poses a threat to the Cuban refugee housing colonies in the Orlando and Daytona Beach areas. With federal resources stretched to the limit by a myriad of crises both at home and abroad, argues Murchinson’s chief of staff, some prioritizing must be done as to where the bulk of post-hurricane relief efforts should be directed. The debate is a raucous one and still in progress when the storm makes landfall five miles south of Canaveral around 2:30 PM.
The main Cuban refugee processing center in Florida, located west of Canaveral, is still trying to get the last of its residents evacuated as the storm tears the Kennedy Space Center apart. This on top of a huge traffic jam of Orlando and Daytona Beach citizens fleeing toward the perceived safety of Miami or Tallahassee, turning highways and roads all over southern Florida into parking lots. It is a scene of chaos reminiscent in many respects of the bedlam that overtook New Orleans twenty-three years earlier as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Louisiana Gulf coast.
Adding insult to injury, much of the manpower that could have helped avert or at least minimize this logjam is stuck in Atlanta because of a fog that has grounded all flights at the city’s main airport. FEMA and Georgia National Guard personnel, who by all rights should be on their way to Miami right now to assist Florida National Guard units in maintaining order and aiding the survivors, are instead cooling their heels at Hartsfield International Airport. The commander of the Georgia National Guard has contacted his counterpart in Texas to see if they can lend a hand with the Florida situation, but he has yet to receive a response.
The Cuban refugees bear the brunt of Fiona’s wrath, thousands of them being killed by the storm itself and hundreds of others succumbing to diseases and civil unrest ensuing in the storm’s aftermath. They are not the only ones to suffer; some 7000 native Floridians will also perish before Fiona turns northward towards the Carolinas. Although Miami Beach is fortunately spared the worst of the battering winds, it still suffers intense flooding that exacts a heavy toll both in lives and property damage. Many of the area’s most popular hotels are seriously hurt or even destroyed by the storm’s rage, and Miami-Dade International Airport is crippled for weeks.
Fiona surges across the Florida state late on the evening of June 21st and creates further mayhem in Georgia, disrupting the Okefenokee Swamp’s ecosystem and flooding Valdosta and Warner Robins before its high winds tear down power lines in the Atlanta area. Not until June 23rd does the hurricane finally peter out somewhere in the Cheoah Mountains of North Carolina, and by then FEMA finds itself faced with a two-state, multimillion-dollar cleanup effort that could take weeks if not months to finish.
Ironically, that turns out to be the easy part for the Murchinson Administration; within barely ten days after Fiona’s rampage ends, the president is being bombarded left and right with criticism over his handling of the Cuban refugees. Liberals blast him for what they perceive as his ineffectiveness in protecting the refugees from the storm’s wrath, while conservatives seize on the disaster to condemn Murchinson’s alleged softness on illegal immigration. The chorus of censure goes on for months and becomes louder by the day until, at its peak, GOP presidential candidate and Oklahoma senator Dylan Greenwood moves for Murchinson’s impeachment. While it doesn’t make as much headway as Greenwood would have liked, the impeachment trial melds with the controversy over the Cuban refugees to put a severe strain on Murchinson’s health, and less than three weeks before Election Day he is hospitalized with cardiac arrest, compelling his vice-president Michael Chon to assume the commander-in-chief’s duties during Murchinson’s recuperation while simultaneously trying to salvage the Democratic Party’s hopes of retaining control of the White House.
While Chon succeeds fairly at the first job, the second unfortunately proves to be beyond his capabilities: despite a diligent campaign effort, he and his de facto running mate narrowly lose to the Dylan Greenwood ticket when all is said and done. His political standing takes a noticeable hit as a result of the loss, and things get even worse for him in the spring of 2029 when one of his key Democratic allies, Texas governor Evan Hidalgo, inadvertently involves him in a bribery scandal surrounding Hidalgo’s top urban planning advisor. The one man who could have extricated him from this quagmire is, unfortunately, lying in a coma in Georgetown University hospital...
That, however, pales in comparison to the full-scale riots that are tearing southern Florida apart as some of the refugees take their frustrations over their plight out on anyone and anything within arm’s reach. The already tough job of trying to clean up the mess Hurricane Fiona left behind is made that much harder by the unrest, and many of those who volunteered to help pick up the pieces after the storm choose to bail out rather than face the possibility of getting shot or beaten; eventually President Greenwood is forced to declare martial law for all parts of Florida affected by Fiona.
This does not sit well with Greenwood’s supporters, who elected him to the presidency largely on his pledge to reduce federal intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans. Nor does it win him any friends among Hispanic-Americans, many of whom feel as if the Greenwood Administration is singling them out merely because they happen to be of the same ethnic background as the rioters. Around the summer of 2030 a groundswell of anti-Greenwood sentiment begins to spread into all sections of the American political spectrum, by the time that Greenwood formally announces his re-election campaign six months later his once-gleaming hopes for a second term have been seriously tarnished. In the 2032 New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucus the Iraq War vet takes a serious beating, and by the time the New York primary comes around Greenwood has dropped out of the race, his once- promising political career in tatters.
In real life, both Murchinson and Greenwood were somewhat more fortunate(though Murchinson might not have thought so after his Election Day 2028 defeat). Murchinson never suffered a heart attack and so was able to rebuild from the collapse of his political career to start a second life as a civics professor at Gonzaga University; he’s written three books about his life in politics and Hurricane Fiona, and a fourth, dealing with his recollections of the Vietnam- Cambodia border crisis, is due to be published in early 2051.
Greenwood succeeded in his bid for a second term, and in fact his 2032 election triumphed paved the way for his defense secretary James Millrose to claim the White House in 2036. Greenwood, now a federal judge, is being considered to head the Supreme Court; if the Senate votes to confirm his nomination, he will be the first man in American history to have headed all three branches of government.1
Southern Florida did experience some mass protests in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, but thankfully none of them ever came close to reaching the level of violence of the riots which strike it in the alternate scenario you’ve just read. As for Vice-President Chon, he had little contact with Governor Hidalgo during the 2028 campaign and admits he hasn’t spoken to Hidalgo in almost eight years.
In our next chapter, we’ll look at how a better communications system might have minimized the loss of life in Galveston inflicted by Fiona.
To Be Continued....
1Before becoming president, Greenwood spent five years as Speaker of the House of Representatives.