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I never wanted to be famous.
Two years ago, my life was defined by my research as an academic and the work I had done with natural disasters. No one outside of my academic and professional bubbles knew who I was, and I was perfectly content with that.
I wanted to save lives. I wanted to spend my life studying the Earth to help us better prepare us for its most volatile extremes, chiefly hurricanes and climate change. I did this because my own experiences with storms – specifically Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – pushed me to better-understand the many and varied elements of disaster – from the physical earth science to the social fallout.
For a girl who grew up poor and intermittently homeless in rural, southern Mississippi to earn a full ride to a school like Syracuse University and take my career as far as I had for as young as I was, I had everything I could have ever wanted. Two beautiful, amazing kids. A husband I love dearly, who also dedicated his life to service in public health. A job that criminally underpaid, but felt important so it didn’t matter. Nothing was missing.
I treated every situation like life and death because, in my profession, it almost always was.
I took the task of managing the state of Florida’s public COVID-19 data and surveillance systems seriously. I spent 12, 14 even 18 hours a day making sure our data were accurate, presented to the public in an easily consumable format, and accessible to all.
Even Dr. Deborah Birx, former White House COVID-19 Task Force member under Trump, did a tour of morning shows praising my work in Florida.
Then everything changed. I refused to mislead the public about key metrics in our state, and was fired as soon as I said I wanted to file a whistleblower complaint.
That was two years ago today.
To be a normal citizen with zero media exposure to the #1 trending topic on Twitter (a platform I did not even use back then) and my picture being shown on every news channel in less than a day could only be described as disorienting, dizzying, surreal.
What shocked me most of all was not what I was asked to do or even that I was fired for refusing to do it, but that the Governor of Florida made it his personal mission to destroy me from that moment forward.
DeSantis’ fixation on me – from outing me as the whistleblower on live television, to ordering an armed raid on my home, exchanging more than 4,000 emails specifically about me with his staff over a period of 12 months, and the coordinated smear campaign still ongoing and aided by a de facto media blackout of my campaign for Congress against Matt Gaetz – best illustrates his “relentless” and “vindictive” power, as a former state agency head once described him.
DeSantis came after me directly at first. He suggested I couldn’t be a scientist – despite my advanced degrees, research in coastal and climate science, and many awards in my field – because of the way I look.
He called me the “darling of the fever swamps” days after the armed raid of my home – without a warrant in-hand -which he admitted he played a part in.
He hired a woman with no accomplishments, no qualifications, and deep ties to European fascists and neo-Nazis to be his press secretary not in spite of her being criminally charged with repeatedly violating restraining orders three separate judges granted me against her, but rather BECAUSE of it.
All because I refused to do what he wanted. I refused to back down. I refused to be intimidated or threatened by a politician who meant nothing to me and had no power over me.
After two years of investigating my complaint, a process that by law should take only 90 days, we still have not received a determination. In March, we received a preliminary draft of what the determination could be, and responded with additional documentation in support of my complaint. The investigator indicated the report – which already weighed heavily in my favor – would be further revised to reflect the new information we provided.
We found out last Friday the investigator no longer works for the inspector’s office at the Department of Health. Abruptly, without reason, he was removed. We must start over. In the context of state whistleblower complaints, the situation is unprecedented.
By every measure, Florida failed in its response to the pandemic. Not only did they fail – we saw among the highest rates for cases and deaths per capita even after vaccines became widely available. Adjustments for age, poverty, race don’t improve their stats, either.
The record of DeSantis’ interference in COVID-19 reporting extends far beyond what I personally witnessed. Florida has since been caught fabricating COVID-19 vaccination data to inflate their vaccination rate – or, even more nefariously, potentially using Florida’s high death rate but mediocre vaccination rates to falsely claim vaccines don’t work. The state became the focus of multiple research studies, all indicating that Florida massively under-reported, obfuscated its statistics, needlessly put people in danger, and recklessly caused the unnecessary deaths of more than 70,000 Floridians.
I hoped I would be wrong about it all. I hoped Florida could come through the pandemic faring better than every expert said it would be. But I was right. We were all right. And it cost my state more than can ever be portrayed with numbers alone.
In April 2021, just weeks before I received official whistleblower protection and the Miami-Herald article came out, the National Review wrote an opinion piece attempting, and massively failing, to prove my complaint was a fabrication. The doom-and-gloom of the article, attributed to a single “anonymous” source who did not work at the Department of Health and was in no way involved with COVID-19 response, claimed the impossibility of these happening as I said. No one can read the highly sexualized overtones, the misogynistic comments about my education and pedigree, and the hyper-politicized nature of this online magazine for more than two sentences without needing a barf bag because of how badly it stunk of a political hit job.
Yet, Jeb Bush tweeted about it. Tucker Carlson did an entire segment about it. Even Jake Tapper sent it to his followers. Funny enough, not one of those outlets correctly stated what was in my actual complaint, the allegations made within, or the mountain of evidence supporting what had already been proven in the press. MSNBC even allowed this fabulist opinion writer on Morning Joe, and when I asked to be given the opportunity to respond to the defamation they allowed on their show, I never heard back.
The timing seemed incredibly strange. Why come at me so hard now, I thought. Is there something I am missing? I moved out of the state after the armed raid on my home, so what threat could I possibly to be DeSantis from Washington, D.C.? They coordinated a massive right-wing attack across all of their platforms in a single day. That was their best shot. Why? More importantly, why then?
I received official whistleblower protection from the state in May 2021, just weeks after that opinion piece came out. The initial findings agreed with my report. The state couldn’t use its authority to attack me anymore.
Suddenly, it made sense. They knew it was coming. They tried to pre-emptively do damage control.
I wish the protection had been granted when I first filed the complaint a year prior. Perhaps then my son would be able to sleep through the night. My husband wouldn’t be afraid every time someone knocks at the door. We wouldn’t live with the fear every single day of our lives that I am going to get hurt or killed on DeSantis’ orders, or just be disappeared, falsely arrested, or worst of all, something happen to my family. I still worry about it every day as I campaign for Congress in Northwest Florida, where I’ve been living with my family since being able to return to Florida.
Just weeks after receiving official protection, the Miami Herald published a stunning, 5,000-word expose showing that my whistleblower complaint was true and accurate in depicting what had happened. I planned on sharing the Herald piece far and wide. The truth had come out and my story told fairly.
I tried sharing the Miami Herald article with friends, supporters, and even in direct response to the hoard of stalkers and trolls that followed me on Twitter, posting sexually degrading comments, sending me death threats, creating an entirely new sub-reddit of vile words and phrases in their pro-DeSantis fanaticism.
Then I was suspended for sharing it too many times – a violation of their spam policy, Twitter officials said.
Two days after Jack Dorsey made a trip to Florida, where he allegedly discussed “social media issues” with DeSantis’ staff. Two days after the state decided to stop all reporting of COVID-19 data – just as its second summer of death began taking off.
With more than 400,000 followers, I became one of the most prominent critics of DeSantis who wasn’t gunning for his job. According to MIT, I was also one of the most trusted sources of COVID-19 information in the country. So long as COVID-19 ravaged Florida and there was data to report, the public trusted me over the state a million times over.
No more statistics. No more platform. No Herald article reaching the masses. No Democratic outcry over my suspension, even as domestic terrorists cry about conservative voices being “censored” on social media. No answers from Twitter about why I’m still suspended today – nearly a year later – or why I’m the only candidate leading a Congressional race in the United States who isn’t even allowed to have a campaign account. Silence is compliance, and America continues to comply with autocrats who would rather tear our nation apart than to see themselves as the monsters and failures they are.
I’m hardly alone in experiencing the lengths DeSantis’ will go exact revenge upon detractors who embarrass him.
DeSantis appears not to be driven by morals or principles, but by an opportunistic and even reactionary need to control others, often at the expense of his own success (e.g. taking on Disney for supporting LGBT rights).
Daniel Uhlfelder challenged the state’s choice to keep beaches and travel open in Florida during spring break of 2020, dressing as death to draw attention to reckless policies enacted by the DeSantis regime. DeSantis used his authority and appointees to try to strip Dan of his law license and destroy his career. Dan fought back and is now leading the race for Florida’s Attorney General.
Grant Stern, a reporter from south Florida known for being fearless in his work, was dragged out of a press conference for asking a benign question, fracturing his ankle as police violently removed him from an event he was credentialed to attend. Grant went on to expose the breadth of DeSantis’ massive disinformation network in what I expect will be award-winning coverage of Florida affairs.
Tom Kennedy, a Democratic activist, has been illegally detained at least twice for trying to attend events that were open to the public, and for asking questions about various issues facing his community. One of Tom’s illegal arrests revealed that DeSantis’ kept an enemies list – a precursor to the hit-list published by a few of my internet stalkers and widely shared by members of DeSantis’ core staff.
When school districts tried to protect their students, teachers and staff by doing the absolute bare minimum during COVID-19 and mandating masks, Desantis cut their funding. The state also tried to hide the number of cases in K-12 schools in 2020-2021, but I ruined those plans by creating the only national database of COVID-19 cases for schools nationwide. President Biden stepped up to ensure school districts did not lose funding, and we expect the backlash of DeSantis’ big-government-overreach policies to be severe this November. In one of the more-recent polls, DeSantis trails Charlie Crist by 10 points.
DeSantis waged war on elections by allegedly threatening Republican members of the Florida legislature to pass his gerrymandered and unconstitutional Congressional maps, lest their kids not make it home from school the next day, according to one representative I spoke with. Days after the threats were issued, for the first time in state history, the Florida legislature ceded its constitutional authority to redraw the districts to the sole power of the Governor.
DeSantis passed laws making it legal to plow through protestors, banned teaching certain periods of history or discussing racism in American history, banned businesses from requiring masks or proof of vaccinations inside their stores, over-rid local governments on all matters related to COVID-19 thus consolidating even more power to his office, created a new military force which answers directly to him, created a new elections “police force” that answers only to him, passed laws allowing jails to detain you indefinitely if you’re anywhere near a “riot,” a definition he changed to any group of five or more unrelated people gathering for a shared cause, banned math books for using Hispanic-sounding names under his anti-Critical Race Theory laws, and still manages to control enough of the media narrative to make him seem like a viable contender not only to win his re-election this November, but also as a potential future candidate for President. God help us.
And either the bulk of media outlets are too scared to stand up to him and his cronies, or they’re complicit.
In what universe does the media actively avoid discussing how one of the most controversial members of congress, under investigation for sex trafficking minors, is trailing in the polls to his democratic opponent in an otherwise conservative district?
Forget for a moment that I was named Forbes’ first-ever Technology Person of the Year, one of Fortune’s 40 under 40, nominated for the John Maddox prize, managed the state’s primary resource for COVID-19 information for nearly two years, built the only national database for tracking COVID-19 cases in schools nationwide, was a March 2021 feature in Cosmopolitan magazine, endorsed by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann, celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Michael Kors, and have already broken a number of records during campaign. Forget there’s two movies being made about my life and how I got here, including a documentary film directed by Academy Award nominated director Josh Fox.
The fact that Matt Gaetz is trailing me in the polls would be an excellent story even if I hadn’t done all those things, had never been the Florida whistleblower, never found myself in the cross-heirs of the Governor, never been raided, never been smeared by European disinformation networks, and never been famous. That the one person beating Gaetz is one of DeSantis’ biggest enemies, the top of his alleged hit-list, the “darling of the fever swamps,” makes the story all the more interesting.
Part of the reason might be that DeSantis’ disinformation agents will descend upon anyone mentioning my name within seconds in a highly coordinated smear campaign designed to bully, harass and scare anyone on the platform into silence. Try it. You'll see.
A man who would orchestrate an armed raid of a scientist’s home because she knocked him down a peg by simply telling the truth and doing her job well is capable of much more evil things if we do not stop him now.
The media continues to profit from the outrage of these policies whilst having learned nothing from how poorly they handled Trump.
If what happened to me – caught on camera, shown to the world – can go on for two years without justice, why should anyone reading this believe it would be any different for them?
And why on Earth would Twitter enable it by suspending me for sharing a news article?
And in two years, will no one be able to speak freely should this monster be allowed to destroy democracy?