The biggest story of the year in Florida in 2018 wasn't necessarily one of the stories we choose to present to you here. The biggest story was the personal one, the one that shook you to your foundation wherever you were, whatever you were doing, however it left you and your family. But we believe that years from now, when historians reflect on this dramatic year, these five events or conditions will go a long way toward defining our state and its people and how they responded together.
1. The hostile midterm elections touched on virtually every large issue Florida had to offer in 2018 -- from guns and beach access to climate change and the endurance of the president's popularity. Presidents past and present stumped for Sunshine State candidates. The Democrats' progressive gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum shocked the state and the nation, attracting millions of dollars to his campaign from out-of-state billionaires when he came from the bottom of a moneyed pack of challengers to win the primary. Meanwhile, Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, assumed in January to be the candidate to beat, went down to defeat in August after President Trump threw his support behind Congressman Ron DeSantis. On the verge of becoming Florida's first African-American governor, Tallahassee Mayor Gillum -- plagued by an FBI investigation into fraud in his city government, fell to DeSantis by 32,463 votes. Even closer was the U.S. Senate race between the Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and current Gov. Rick Scott. Scott overcame a vicious media campaign against him, but not before post-election drama in Broward and Palm Beach County continued to produce unopened and uncounted ballots. Scott's victory went from 38,717 votes on Election Night, to 10,033 after the final manual recount. Scott, who strongly suspected skulduggery, ultimately removed Broward Elections Superintendent Brenda Snipes from office for her series of unexplained gaffes.
2. The Parkland school shooting happened on Valentine’s Day -- a senseless act by a troubled former student with a semi-automatic rifle who killed 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The shooting sparked a number of protests nationwide calling for stricter gun control in the U.S.,
including the March for Our Lives demonstration that drew thousands of people to Washington, D.C. earlier this year. It was this passionate response by a group of student survivors at the school that touched the hearts of a nation and drew support from celebrities, politicians and millionaires that made this time different. The group inspired massive walkouts and peaceful protests at schools across the country. The movement has slowed but remains active. Meanwhile, the state and local citizens are examining how this shooter, Nikolas Cruz, slipped through so many cracks, his threats and violent actions ignored for years by the Broward County school system, the Broward Sheriff's Department and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
3. Hurricane Michael made landfall as a high-end Category 4 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph at 12:15 p.m. on Oct. 10, in Mexico Beach and near Tyndall Air Force Base. The powerful storm surge swept numerous homes clean off their foundations while violent winds caused extensive structural damage. In Mexico Beach many homes were flattened or completely swept away by a 14-foot storm surge. Michael's intense eyewall caused major structural damage as far inland as Marianna, where buildings in the downtown area were severely damaged, leaving streets covered in bricks, lumber, and structural debris from collapsed roofs and walls. Homes and churches in town were heavily damaged, and countless trees and power lines were downed. The hurricane also dropped torrential rainfall along its path, reaching 5.05 inches near Scotts Ferry. Debris on Interstate 10 forced officials to close the major roadway between Lake Seminole and Tallahassee, a distance of about 80 miles. In Tallahassee, many trees fell across the city and some 110,000 businesses and homes were left without electricity. In Chattahoochee, the storm left Florida State Hospital -- the oldest and largest psychiatric hospital in the state -- isolated, forcing aid to be dropped by helicopter. The western half of Michael's eyewall passed directly over Panama City, and violent Category 4 winds caused incredible damage throughout the city and its suburbs. Numerous businesses including restaurants, gas stations, shopping centers, office buildings, retail stores, and hotels sustained major structural damage or were destroyed. In residential areas, homes and apartment buildings lost their roofs and exterior walls, and many trees were toppled or snapped or completely defoliated. Vehicles were flipped and overturned, Jinks Middle School sustained destruction of its gymnasium, and a freight train was derailed. Four deaths occurred in Gadsden County, and another three in Marianna, Jackson County. A body was discovered by rescue crews in Mexico Beach on Oct. 12. By Oct. 28, a total of 35 people were officially confirmed to have been killed by the hurricane in Florida, with hundreds still unaccounted for. Approximately 3 million acres of timber were damaged or destroyed statewide, costing an estimated $1.3 billion. Total agricultural loss statewide was about $1.5 billion and insurance loss was set at $2.6 billion.
4. A red tide bloom, starting in 2017, has lingered for more than 12 months and is to blame for at least 46 manatee deaths, 16 dolphin deaths, and a bulk of 309 sea turtle deaths in Sarasota and Manatee waters in 2018. It also nearly cost Gov. Rick Scott the senatorial election because coastal Floridians blamed him for all kinds of lax regulatory water policy. The good news is, Southwest Florida water is starting to clear and wildlife is returning to the beaches. Red tides have occurred as far back as the 1500s, when Spanish explorers recorded periodic incidences of fish kills and fumes that caused respiratory irritation. They are brought about by single-celled microscopic algae known as "dinoflagellates," or Karenia brevis, which has caused the water to turn red in color. While these algae are always present in the coastal waters of Florida, a perfect storm of warm water, sunlight and nutrient availability can cause their populations to explode into a red tide like the one currently sitting on the southwest coast of Florida. This red tide -- which spans nearly 100 miles of coastline -- has caused the death of thousands of marine animals, induced respiratory issues in six Florida counties near the Gulf of Mexico, forced the closure of several beaches, and negatively affected tourism and every manner of related business across the southwest Florida coast. Scientists claim there are some 16 sources of runoff -- "food" that can power the red tide algae. Freshwater bodies like the St. Lucie River have been dealing with their own algal blooms in 2018. But these are caused by a cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) known as Microcystin. Both algal blooms are likely being further sustained by a combination of warm, stagnant waters, ample summer sunlight and nutrients from run-off. In Martin County, few residents go in the water.
5. Florida’s high-flying economy shot through the stratosphere in 2018, hitting a $1 trillion Gross Domestic Product. And all of a sudden, there we were -- the world's 17th largest economy. And right now, on the basis of its solvency in five separate categories, Florida ranks 4th among U.S. states for fiscal health, behind only Nebraska, South Dakota and Tennessee. Look at some of the positives recorded: More than 1.6 million jobs added since December 2010; Standard & Poor raised Florida's Treasury Investment Pool credit rating to AA-; an Aa1 general obligation bond rating was awarded to Florida -- highest a state can achieve. The unemployment rate sank to 3.7 percent -- a drop of 7.1 percentage points since December 2010; the Consumer Sentiment Index at 98.3, up from 70.2 in December 2010. And according to Visit Florida, 30.7 million visitors traveled to Florida in the third quarter of 2018, an increase of 10.1 percent over the same period in 2017. Those visitors include 27.5 million domestic visitors, 2.7 million overseas visitors and 490,000 Canadians, says the agency. This, in spite of a major hurricane and the twin plague of a year-long red tide and blue-green algae. All these things happened under a so-called lame-duck governor who made fiscal security his promise to Florida families.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith