Closer to paradise: life as an environmentalist

A student reflects on growing up in Florida and how her experiences living along the coast inspired her love for the environment.

I had the fortune of being raised in paradise. My hometown of Punta Gorda, Florida showed me every day was a miracle, and it was because of my time there and the relationship I built with the world around me that I decided to become an environmentalist.

Growing up in Punta Gorda, it was not uncommon to see the neighborhood bobcat on the way to school or to stop driving to help a turtle cross the road. In my community, wildlife lived so close to us that they didn’t fear human interaction. For years there was a family of rabbits that lived in the woods behind my house. Frequently, we would leave produce for them, and in turn they would play right at our pool gate. These early experiences living on the Florida coast taught me that as humans we are not separate from the environment, we are part of it.

But in Summer 2004, a handful of days before my 10th birthday, Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, hit my small coast town, destroying my home, my sense of security and my view of the world around me. 


We often had hurricanes in Florida, but not many so severe. Before Charley, the last major hurricane to hit land was in 1992. Charley was the first major hurricane of the 2004 season, where the unseasonably warm waters caused storms to veer into the Gulf  of Mexico and hit southwest Florida. I lived through four hurricane seasons before Charley, but this was the first hurricane I experienced where I saw how the waters of the gulf could level an already flat area and cause flooding up to the rooftops.

Hurricane Charley made me realize how fragile the world around me truly was.  I was living in a rural coastal society where it didn’t seem wasteful to have cars as the main mode of transportation, or to run the air conditioning 24/7. Just because we were so connected to the environment didn’t mean we were actively trying to protect it. It wasn’t until after Charley came through that I realized that maybe our way of living had partly caused the destruction we experienced.

The destruction of this ecosystem caused many native Florida species to flee our side of the gulf in order to survive. The tree loss in my community was great enough that local and migratory birds flew farther south to find habitable areas. Some species of wildlife have yet to return, and the interaction between animals and humans I once cherished became sparse.

When Charley hit, I started to more deeply understand the world in which we live. I was so insulated in my community that the world never felt unsafe, but then everything I knew got wiped away by the hurricane. Suddenly my world didn’t seem safe, and even now 12 years later, I still have nightmares about the storm.

I still hate the smell of pine. My home was surrounded by Florida pine trees, and now every time I smell pine I remember the scared girl I was, standing in my driveway after the storm passed, the sound of ambulances in the distance, the smell of pine fresh in the air. It is in the memory of Charley and the fears I faced that I am constantly reminded to protect the environment from the type of devastation I saw following the storm. As an environmental studies major, my focus is on the interaction between humans and the world, and how we can change our policies to protect the environment we are destroying. And when I graduate next year, I plan to go to law school, so I can one day help implement policy to conserve and protect the environment I grew to love in Florida.

My world might have been destroyed years ago, but it has since been rebuilt and evolved. It’s time society changes its ideas on environmental policy, so we can protect the environment, and communities we love.

I grew up in paradise, and now I’m trying to make sure that everybody else does, too.

Chelsea Williams can be reached at

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