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Epic drought, quarterback’s arrest Georgia’s top stories

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    ATLANTA — This year’s biggest story actually started quietly last year as a minor, if pesky, drought.
    Feeding on sweltering summer temperatures and low rainfall, it has grown into a record drought that’s tested the will of Georgia’s leaders, threatened Atlanta’s water supply and forced the word ‘‘conservation’’ into the area’s lexicon.
    Within the span of a few months, lawns went gray, cars went unwashed, fountains went dry, landscapers went jobless and nurseries went under.
    Weather forecasts, rainfall deficits and dwindling lake levels were catapulted into the lead stories on nightly newscasts, and competing calculations of how much water was left in drying Lake Lanier prompted some Georgians to take matters into their own hands with backyard wells.
    Eighteen Georgia members of The Associated Press — 13 newspapers and five television and radio stations — participated in the news cooperative’s annual survey. All but one of the news outlets had the drought at the top of their lists of top state stories.
    Other stories high on most lists were the arrest and sentencing of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on dogfighting charges, the wildfires that overtook almost 600,000 acres in southeast Georgia and the release of Genarlow Wilson, whose 10 year prison sentence was deemed cruel and unusual by the state’s top court.
    But the drought was overwhelmingly the top story, likely because it threatened to reshape how Georgians lived.
    As it grew worse, the state was forced to spring to action, restricting and eventually banning outdoor watering through north Georgia and ordering a 10 percent water reduction in the area.
    Gov. Sonny Perdue appealed first to President Bush, and next to the heavens, for help. Local politicians blamed the federal government, along with Florida and Alabama, for sending Georgia’s dwindling supply downstream to supply power plants and sustain endangered mussels. Environmentalists, meanwhile, blasted state leaders for not advocating water conservation earlier.
    Suddenly, there was a sense of urgency to settle a long-standing fight with Alabama, Florida and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And there was more attention on a statewide water plan, which if approved by the Legislature next year would be Georgia’s first.
    As the new year grew near, lawmakers vowed to build new reservoirs, and there was even talk of tapping into the Tennessee River across the state border.
    More than one-third of the Southeast remains in an ‘‘exceptional’’ drought — the worst category — and Georgia’s climatologist offered an alarming forecast in December: 2008 could be even worse.
    The arrest of Michael Vick and the fallout that followed was the No. 2 story of the year. Vick pleaded guilty to a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge for his role in a dogfighting operation in Virginia and was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison in December.
    His loss proved devastating to the team, which is set to end the season in the bottom of the league. Coach Bobby Petrino resigned to take a job with Arkansas a day after a humiliating loss on Monday Night Football, and days later former NFL coach Bill Parcells spurned a Falcons job offer in favor of a gig with the last-place Miami Dolphins.
    The wildfires that started near Waycross and quickly spread into the Okefenokee Swamp was the year’s third-ranked story. The fires burned 578,000 acres — or 903 square miles — in Georgia and Florida and covered an area almost 3 times larger than New York City, and plumes of smoke wafted as far north as Atlanta. Dozens of firefighters from across the country headed to the region to fight the Southeast’s biggest wildfire since 1898.
    A federal ruling clearing the way for Georgia’s voter identification law to take effect was the No. 4 story. Critics warned the law requiring residents to show certain types of photo IDs would cause widespread problems, but none were reported during the year’s municipal elections. The law will get a statewide test Feb. 5 in the Georgia presidential primary.
    The No. 5 story was an unusual court ruling in an unusual case. Genarlow Wilson was released from prison after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled his 10-year prison sentence for having consensual oral sex with a fellow teenager is cruel and unusual. The case also cast more scrutiny on the state’s tough new sex offender laws, which were overturned in November by the Georgia Supreme Court.
    The mounting debt faced by Atlanta’s public trauma center was ranked sixth. The beleaguered Grady Memorial Hospital, which serves many of the region’s uninsured and severely injured, is facing a massive deficit that threatens to put it out of business and is hoping for a state bailout.
    Delta Air Lines’ emergence from bankruptcy ranked No. 7 on the list. After eliminating jobs, cutting costs, restructuring its fleet and surviving a hostile takeover bid, the Atlanta-based airline emerged from bankruptcy protection as an independent carrier. The airline now has a new focus on international flights, but some analysts are still pushing for a merger.
    The No. 8 and No. 9 stories were tragedies that struck within hours of each other.
    A charter bus carrying a college baseball team from Ohio’s Bluffton University plunged off an interstate ramp in downtown Atlanta in early March, killing six people and injuring 29. The state responded by changing signs at the ramp, which some had criticized as confusing.
    The same day, residents in southwest Georgia were clearing the wreckage of a spate of tornadoes that killed at least nine people. Among the hardest hit was a regional hospital in Americus, where doctors scrambled to treat the injured even as the storm slammed cars, trees and debris into the building’s walls.
    The tenth-ranked story was the nationwide salmonella outbreak linked to tainted peanut butter in south Georgia. Nearly 300 cases in 39 states were linked to the plant in Sylvester, which was closed for six months for renovation.
    Stories close to making the list include the legal wrangling over the trial of accused courthouse gunman Brian Nichols, the saga of Andrew Speaker, a young Atlanta lawyer who was suspected of carrying a dangerous form of tuberculosis overseas, and the death of pro wrestler Chris Benoit, who police say killed his wife, his son and then himself.

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