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From Parkland to Hurricane Michael: The Year In Review In Florida

Photos By: Peter Haden, Caitie Switalski, Pedro Portal

The deadly February school shooting in Parkland led to a landmark gun and school safety law. The November midterm election lasted well beyond Election Day in Florida, with a mandated recount in a few races. Blue green algae and red tide swirled in waters around the state, and Hurricane Michael slammed into the Panhandle.

Here are the four stories that shaped Florida in 2018.

The Shooting At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

On Valentine's Day, 17 people were killed and 17 more injured when a 19-year-old gunman entered his former high school in Parkland. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School became the site of the deadliest high school shooting in the country.

Fueled by rage over the shooting, Stoneman Douglas students became activists overnight, using their voices in unprecedented ways.

“We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” said student Emma Gonzalez just days after the shooting, promising that she and her classmates would push politicians to act.

Just weeks later, the Florida legislature passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which included the first restrictions to gun ownership in Florida in decades. Though the legislation didn’t address assault weapons, the law does require more security at public schools, mandatory active shooter drills for students, and more mental health counseling. It also raised the age to purchase firearms to 21 in the state and created the Guardian program, which allows some school staff to be armed.

It was a huge deal for a state that has been under Republican control for 20 years and whose leaders have strong ties to the NRA.

“Students were angry and came to Tallahassee and wouldn’t leave until lawmakers did something,” Lynn Hatter, the news director at WFSU in Tallahassee, said Friday on The Florida Roundup. “It’s was the right moment triggered by one of worst tragedies the state had ever seen.”

The students went on to create March for Our Lives, a national march against gun violence that was one of the biggest youth-led protests since the Vietnam War era. They led a massive voter registration campaign. And they continue to push for change.

The legislature also mandated a commission to study what went wrong during the shooting and make recommendations for school safety to avoid a similar tragedy in the future. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission will release its findings in a 16-chapter, 400 page report in January 2019.

The Florida Recount

In Florida, the 2018 midterm election did not end on Election Day. A few races were too close to call, including the governor’s race and race for U.S. Senate, pitting incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson against Governor Rick Scott. That triggered a state required recount.

Then, in a series of events that harkened back to the infamous 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, South Florida faced issues with its recount. Vote counting machines in Palm Beach County broke down and could only recount one race at a time. In Broward County there were delays in counting absentee ballots, questions over provisional ballots, and struggles to recount votes in several races.

That sparked fury, including from Governor Rick Scott, who stood on the porch of the governor’s mansion and told Floridians they “should be concerned there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward counties.”

More than a week later, the results were final: Republican Ron DeSantis won the race for governor. Governor Scott unseated Bill Nelson in the U.S. Senate, and Nikki Fried became the first Democrat to be elected to the state cabinet in 12 years, as Agriculture Commissioner.

The recount has elevated calls to reform vote counting processes across the state. Elections experts say Florida faces a number of issues when it comes to tallying votes, including unreasonable timelines and an overwhelming amount of mail-in ballots, plus outdated machines.

Whereas there were less than a million mail-in ballots in Florida in 2000, now 2.5 million people cast via mail.

“One of things local supervisors have been saying is they want more time to conduct recounts,” Hatter said. “California can take up to a month -- they say there’s nothing wrong with that, [that] ‘we’d rather get it right.’"

Blue Green Algae And Red Tide 

Algae returned late this summer after massive releases of polluted Lake Okeechobee water into the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, feeding an outbreak for the second summer in the past three years.

And red tide spread up and down the Gulf Coast in the worst outbreak in 12 years.

The outbreaks caused devastation of fish and wildlife and had a massive impact on tourism across the state, closing many beaches and sending people inside.

Even now, red tide is still impacting parts of the state.

“It never did go away,” Julie Glenn, the News Director of WGCU, Southwest Florida's NPR station, said Friday on The Florida Roundup.

Just this month, Marco Island saw the death of a number of birds that fell out of the sky due to red tide. And last month, 42 dolphins washed up along Collier and Lee County beaches as a result of red tide.

The environmental damage also impacted state politics. In the race for Florida governor, DeSantis pitched himself as a champion of the environment and a “conservationist.” He came out in favor of construction of a massive water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee and has also pledged to form a task force to look at cases of red tide.

And despite a lackluster environmental record, and widespread criticism over the algae and red tide outbreaks, outgoing Gov. Scott won his Senate race against incumbent Bill Nelson.

Hurricane Michael

Over just two days in October, Hurricane Michael swelled to a major Category 4 storm as it raced up the Gulf of Mexico. It slammed into the panhandle near Panama City with 155 miles per hour winds and storm surges up to 14 feet, wiping out entire neighborhoods and cripping the region.

Measured by barometric pressure, Michael was one of the most powerful storms to ever make landfall in the U.S. It is estimated to have cost the U.S. economy at least $25 billion.

“If you look at damage, it looks like one massive tornado came through the area,” said Jessica Foster of WJHG-News, the NBC Affiliate in Panama City, on The Florida Roundup. “This was North Florida’s Hurricane Andrew.”

In Panama City alone, 60 percent of homes were destroyed.

And though basics like water and electricity have returned to storm-ravaged areas, a housing crisis has emerged. Today, hundreds of people are living in tent cities.

“The landscape has completely changed. The way of life has completely changed. It’s a new way of looking at things,” Foster said.

Many are frustrated with what they say is slow action by the federal government.

Officials continue to clear land for FEMA trailers that act as temporary housing.

“We still have a long way to go,” Foster said. “We’re hearing from people who are saying: ‘please don’t forget about us.’ We still have quite a recovery ahead of us.”

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