There was a collective gasp among the elected officials, first responders and reporters gathered around Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer when he announced that 49 patrons and a gunman were dead from an assault at an Orlando gay nightclub on “Latin Night” in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The massacre at Pulse nightclub in June was voted Florida’s biggest story of 2016 in an Associated Press poll of the state’s newspaper editors.
Orlando, a community whose top industry is theme-park escapism, was confronted with the harshest of realities – a self-radicalized gunman who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group had taken the lives of dozens of primarily young, Hispanic and gay and lesbian patrons.
Omar Mateen, a contract security guard, was killed in a shootout with SWAT team members after a three-hour standoff at the nightclub.
The deaths cut across Orlando’s gay and Latino communities, but central Floridians of every background responded to what happened. Tens of thousands of people attended vigils and memorials in the days after the massacre. Hundreds waited in long lines to give blood and thousands donated almost $30 million for the victims of the massacre. Rainbow flags often associated with gay pride became so ubiquitous in central Florida that they almost became the Orlando area’s unofficial symbol in the months after the shootings.
Other top stories in Florida:
2. TRUMP WINS FLORIDA
Part-time Florida resident Donald Trump carried the Sunshine State by 1.3 percentage points on his way to winning the presidency. With its 29 votes, and a reputation as the nation’s largest swing state, Florida was considered crucial for any chance Trump had of winning the Electoral College. Both the Republican candidate and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and their surrogates made daily stops in Florida in the closing weeks of the election.
3. HURRICANES (tie).
It had been 11 years since Florida had a hurricane, and in 2016, two hurricanes hit the state. Hurricane Hermine made landfall Florida’s Big Bend with 80 mph winds. Coastal communities were forced to evacuate, and some areas went without power for a week. Hurricane Matthew struck in October, riding up the Florida coast and into Georgia and the Carolinas. Although Matthew inflicted less damage than many had feared, it still impaired or destroyed more than 1 million structures and caused an estimated $10 billion in damage throughout the Southeast.
3. FIDEL CASTRO'S DEATH (tie).
Although rumors of his imminent death had been a staple of Miami’s Cuban community for decades, Fidel Castro’s death at age 90 in November ended an era for the 1.3 million Floridians of Cuban origin, many who came to the state in the years after his communist revolution in 1959. Thousands of people took the streets of Miami for spontaneous celebrations.
3. ZIKA OUTBREAK. (tie)
Health officials had been warning it was only a matter of time before the Zika virus came to the U.S. mainland. Last July, the first such case of the virus transmitted by mosquito bite was reported in the Miami area, and by the end of the summer four zones in the Miami area had been identified as where the virus was spreading by mosquitoes. Pregnant woman were urged to avoid those areas since Zika infection can cause severe birth defects, including microcephaly, where babies are born with a dangerously small head. Blood donations in two South Florida counties were suspended, and hoteliers and restaurant owners worried about what the effect would be on tourism, Florida’s biggest industry. It turns out, there was little tourism fallout, and in early December all four areas had been deemed clear of continuing infections.
4. FLORIDA'S DEATH PENALTY.
The fate of Florida’s death row inmates was thrown into limbo amid a series of rulings by the state and federal Supreme Courts. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida’s sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, rather than juries, in sentencing defendants to death. The Florida Legislature passed a new law requiring a vote of at least 10 of 12 jurors for an execution to be carried out, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled in October that death sentences must require a unanimous jury and struck down the new law. In December, the Florida Supreme Court decided that all death sentences imposed before a key 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, or about half of the 386 inmates on death row, can remain in place. But the court also declared in a separate ruling that anyone who received a death sentence after that 2002 decision could be eligible for a new sentencing hearing.
5. SOLAR POWER AMENDMENTS (tie).
Florida voters approved one amendment making solar power cheaper and rejected another that could have made it more costly. In August, voters approved Amendment 4, which called for tax breaks that could help both commercial and residential property owners install solar or renewable energy systems or devices more affordably. Two months later, voters rejected Amendment 1, a utility-funded ballot measure that would have opened the door for changes to the system of credit earned by homeowners who install solar panels and produce surplus energy. The solar industry said the amendment would have penalized users of sun-derived power who sell their excess energy back to the grid.
5. BROWN INDICTED (tie).
U.S. Rep. Corrine was charged with using a charity as a slush fund in July. The congresswoman from Jacksonville, who had served in the House of Representatives for 23 years before losing a primary race last fall, has pleaded not guilty to charges in a 22-count indictment that include conspiracy, wire fraud and tax law violations.
6. MIAMI MARLINS PITCHER KILLED (tie).
Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and two friends were killed when the 24-year-old baseball star’s boat crashed into a Miami Beach jetty in September. Toxicology reports indicate he had cocaine and alcohol in his body although it was unclear who was driving.
6. ALLIGATOR KILLS BOY AT DISNEY WORLD (tie).
A toddler from Nebraska was snatched by an alligator from the edge of a lagoon at Walt Disney World. He was killed by drowning and a crushing bite to the head. The alligator death capped a week of at tragedies in the Orlando area last June that included the shooting death of “The Voice” singer Christina Grimmie by a gunman and the Pulse nightclub massacre.
Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mikeschneiderap. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/Mike-Schneider.