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2013: Top stories of the year

THE STORY OF 2013 in many ways is a tale of institutions, of unchecked spy agencies, of regimes that kill civilians with gas, of a broken health care website. But the year could just as easily be told through the individuals who changed the world over decades or with the push of a button — a slight woman who wanted to marry the woman she loved, a 29-year-old computer specialist who pulled back the curtain on government surveillance, a new pope who inspired with his humility and a man so righteous in his cause no prison could hold him.

BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS

On April 15, Patriot's Day, two bombs built inside pressure cookers exploded as more than 23,000 runners neared the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The powerful explosions killed three people and wounded 264 others. One suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed during a confrontation with police several days after the attacks. During an intense manhunt later that day, his younger brother, Dzhokhar, then 19, was captured hiding in a boat. The survivor, being held in solitary confinement, faces trial in 2014. If convicted, he faces the death penalty. The suspects are also accused of killing an MIT police officer. In May, FBI agents were interviewing a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Orlando about a triple-homicide in Massachusetts linked to Tsarnaev. According to the agents, the friend, Ibragim Todashev, initiated a "violent confrontation" and was shot to death. A state attorney continues to investigate the death.

OBAMACARE'S FLAWED BEGINNING

The launch of healthcare.gov on Oct. 1 was meant to give millions of Americans access to health insurance with the ease of a few mouse clicks, a consumer experience that President Barack Obama compared to buying a TV on Amazon. But that's not what happened. Instead, people around the country were met with frozen screens and error messages. At first, officials said it was because of huge demand. But eventually it became clear that the website had serious technology issues that the federal government would have to clean up, and fast. What surprised even veteran health care watchers was that the Obama administration had so much time to get it right — years since the health care law's passage in 2010 — and fouled it up anyway. Officials say, and consumers agree, that the website improved significantly in November and December. But the debacle took a toll on Obama's approval ratings, which dropped to their lowest point of the year.

FLOOD INSURANCE RATES

The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act was passed in response to huge losses to the flood program during Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. The law dramatically raised rates on older, flood-zone homes that had been grandfathered in with lower rates decades ago before community flood maps were adopted. But the phase-out of subsidies was based on false assumptions, misleading data and led to unintended consequences. Florida was hit hard by the increased rates, even though the state was a big reason the program had stayed afloat. The state's homeowners had paid more than four times in premiums than they received back in claims over the past 35 years. The Tampa Bay Times was the first to report how Pinellas County was hardest-hit, with more subsidized properties facing sharp rate hikes than any other county nationwide. The Times worked with data from area property appraisers to show how the rate hikes targeted modest, inland homes.

BIG YEAR FOR SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and overturned California's Proposition 8, opening the door for broader gay marriages and equal compensation for surviving spouses of same-sex marriages. In the DOMA ruling, a 5-to-4 majority of the court overturned a law that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. The decision does not guarantee a right to same-sex marriage, but it lets people who live in states that allow same-sex marriage receive the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. The court also declined to rule on the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage, and instead dismissed the case on procedural grounds. The court held that supporters of the ballot initiative did not have the legal right to be in court. The ruling left in place a lower-court decision that struck down the law. Same-sex marriage is now allowed in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

NUCLEAR POWER PLANS SCRAPPED

Duke Energy effectively ended its nuclear ambitions in Florida, at least for the next few years. In February, the company shuttered its plant in Crystal River north of Tampa. The plant hadn't produced any power since it went offline in 2009 for what should have been routine maintenance. Duke's predecessor, Progress Energy, made several poor decisions that led to cracks in the containment wall that houses the reactor. Attempts to repair the wall failed. Earlier this month, Duke announced it would take the next 60 years to decommission the plant. In August, Duke finally canceled plans first unveiled more than six years earlier to build a nuclear power plant in Levy County. Residents of much of Tampa Bay and west-central Florida were forced to fund the Levy project, thanks to a Florida law that remains on the books that allows utilities to charge in advance for nuclear plants, even if they never get built. The price tag for the two projects reached about $5 billion; customers are on the hook for about $3 billion.

HUMBLE POPE OF MANY FIRSTS

The selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as pope on March 13 launched months of headlines about his unorthodox style and humility. The 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is the first Jesuit and the first non-European leader of the church in more than 1,200 years. Pope Francis, 77, sent shock waves through the church with publication of his remarks that the Catholic Church had grown "obsessed'' with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he has chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics. Francis replaced Pope Benedict XVI, 86, who himself set a modern precedent when he resigned on Feb. 28.

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN

The trial of George Zimmerman, 29, whose guilt or innocence in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin had been predetermined months in advance by much of the public, still managed a few surprises. Who expected the assistant defense attorney to make a fool of himself with a knock-knock joke at the expense of the jury? Who expected the lead detective to say he believed the defendant? Who didn't squirm listening to the interminable testimony of the young woman who had been on the phone with Martin that rainy night in February 2012 when the teen encountered the self-appointed neighborhood watchman? But few people who watched the three-week trial, in which no clear evidence emerged about who first approached whom, about whose voice was heard calling for help, about who was the aggressor, about who was on his back on the ground, about when Zimmerman drew his 9mm, could have truly been surprised by the not guilty verdicts. Not guilty of second-degree murder. Not guilty of manslaughter. It took the jury of six women 16 hours over two days to agree that the statute left them no other choice. As one juror later said: Zimmerman "got away with murder."

NSA LEAKS ROCK U.S., WORLD

Before May, virtually no one knew Edward Snowden, and few could describe what the the National Security Agency does. That all changed when the Guardian and the Washington Post published a series of articles about the NSA's massive surveillance programs based on an estimated 200,000 files that Snowden, an NSA contractor and former undercover CIA employee, had downloaded at his desk in an NSA facility in Honolulu. Fearing extradition to the United States where he has been charged with espionage, Snowden, 30, fled to Moscow after turning the files over to reporters in Hong Kong.

UNSETTLED IN SYRIA, EGYPT

The Arab Spring, which began in December 2010, continued to roil parts of the Mideast. In Syria, two years of protests against the government of President Bashar Assad devolved into a brutal civil war. A chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 killed hundreds of civilians, including children, and nearly brought direct U.S. military action, but Syria agreed to destroy its chemical arsenal by mid-2014. In Egypt, the army ousted and jailed the country's first democratically elected president a year after he had been elected. Supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist, staged mass protests in Cairo. The army responded by storming protest camps on Aug. 14. Almost 1,000 died in the crackdown.

ICON OF FREEDOM DIES

Nelson Mandela entered a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, in June with a lung infection. His history of respiratory problems dated to his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island, where he was sent for fighting against apartheid, South Africa's system of racial segregation. He continued to champion equality during his time in prison. He became the nation's first black president in 1994, four years after he was freed, and he inspired the world by seeking a relatively peaceful transition of power. Mandela died Dec. 5 at his home in Johannesburg. He was 95. World leaders, including President Barack Obama, paid tribute at a memorial service in the national stadium on Dec. 10.

The Associated Press top 10

Here are the top stories, in order, according the Associated Press' annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors.

• The troubled launch of healthcare.gov.

• The Boston Marathon bombings.

• Pope Francis taking over as pontiff after Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.

• The divided Congress, including its historically low approval rating, sequestration, the partial government shutdown and Senate Democrat's changes to filibuster rules.

• NSA spying/Edward Snowden leaks.

• Same-sex marriage rulings.

• The death of Nelson Mandela.

• Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 6,000 dead and destroyed the homes of more than 16 million people in the Philippines.

• Civil war in Syria and President Bashar Assad's agreement to eliminate its chemical weapons.

• Three women abducted between 2002 and 2004 rescued in Cleveland. Former bus driver Ariel Castro kidnapped the women, periodically kept them chained, restricted access to food and toilets, and repeatedly raped and assaulted them until their escape. Castro pleaded guilty to multiple charges, and in September, faced with life in prison, hanged himself in his cell.

2013: Top stories of the year 12/27/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 30, 2013 9:56am]

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