Friday, May 25, 2018
News Roundup

In Tampa Bay area, 2016's memorable stories taxed the nose at times

A look back on Tampa Bay area news from 2016 might carry a warning: Hold your nose. There was mud flinging and sludge slinging, with Gawker on trial over a sex video and St. Petersburg's mayor feeling the stink of trial by sewage. But the news wasn't all bad.

As the year comes to a close, Tampa Bay Times editors chose 10 state and local stories that stood out, presented in no particular order here.

Oops there goes another 10 million gallons

St. Petersburg's overstressed sewer system fouled Tampa Bay waterways in the summer with tens of millions of gallons of partially treated human waste, in a crisis that assaulted the senses and dominated local politics.

The approximately 162 million gallons spilled or dumped cost one high-ranking official his job and triggered state and federal investigations.

Storms in June and September led to smaller spills in Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas County and Tampa, too, but nothing quite like St. Petersburg saw.

Ultimately, Mayor Rick Kriseman pledged more than $300 million in upgrades, dropping his opposition to using BP settlement money to fix sewers.

Still, his year was defined by the spills and his handling of the crisis.

Jury awards Hulk Hogan $140 million, buries Gawker

DIRK SHADD | Times

Hulk Hogan leaves the courthouse in St. Petersburg after a jury ruled in his favor against Gawker Media.

The March trial of Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker, staged in Pinellas County, had it all, most notably a celebrity sex scandal.

Retired professional wrestler Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea sued Gawker Media, alleging the New York company violated his privacy in 2012 by posting online a secretly recorded video of him having sex with the wife of ex-best friend and radio DJ Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

Gawker suffered a punishing loss: Founder Nick Denton and former editor A.J. Daulerio were ordered to pay Bollea $140.1 million in damages.

The company filed for bankruptcy protection. The flagship site Gawker.com went dark, and Gawker settled with Bollea for a reported $31 million.

Florida decides it's time for medical marijuana

MONICA HERNDON | Times

Vials of medical marijuana oil.

In 2016, a state divided over presidential candidates came together over cannabis.

Floridians passed a constitutional amendment that allows patients with conditions like cancer and HIV to use marijuana.

Defeated just two years ago, the 2016 measure passed with the support of 6.5 million Floridians, or nearly 2 million more than those who voted for President-elect Donald Trump.

It's unclear when or how the drug will be made available. The Department of Health will begin writing rules in January. By 2019, Florida could produce $1 billion in sales.

Eyes opened to toll plan for Howard Frankland Bridge

ELI ZHANG | Times

Florida's Department of Transportation tabled a plan to add toll lanes to the Howard Frankland Bridge, after the Times called attention to what the plan actually entailed.

Rebuilding the northbound span had been on the books for years. Elected officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties approved a plan promoted by the Florida Department of Transportation that included toll lanes.

DOT said tolls would speed the commute for those willing to pay as much as $6 each way.

While many thought the tolls would mean new lanes for the four-lane bridge, DOT's plan was to put the toll on an existing lane, leaving only three lanes for drivers who didn't want to pay. Local leaders were outraged. After a week of criticism, DOT put the project on hold. Six weeks later, the DOT official who oversaw the project resigned. INTERACTIVE: How the plan to fix the Howard Frankland Bridge fell apart, told in Legos

Look, up in the air, it's a cigar and a bottle of rum

PAUL GUZZO | Times

Passengers were given free hats for the first commercial flight on Southwest Airlines in five decades from Tampa International Airport to Havana on Dec. 12.

Daima Canco flew to Havana on the morning of Dec. 12 to see family. She also saw history. The Cuban-born woman became the first passenger on a commercial flight from Tampa to set foot in Havana in more than 50 years.

Southwest Airlines' daily commercial service from Tampa to Havana came in a wave of increasingly normalized relations between the United States and Cuba. Tampa was chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 cities to host the commercial service.

With President Barack Obama's Cuba policies facing criticism by a new administration, it's unclear how long the flights will last.

Walmart gives new meaning to blue light specials

LAURA MOREL | Times

Zephyrhills police officer Timothy Murr speaks with Walmart's loss prevention employees outside of a store at 7631 Gall Blvd. after someone was accused of trespassing. In 2014, officers were called to the Walmart nearly 1,000 times.

A Times analysis of one year of police work at Walmart revealed more than 16,000 calls to the area's 53 supercenters, often for petty conduct. Critics said the company foisted its security burden onto public agencies.

Elected officials demanded reviews. Walmart executives flew to the Tampa Bay area and met with police chiefs and sheriffs.

A corporate spokeswoman said, simply: "We know we can do better, and we will."

Walmart has since expanded a diversion program for some first-time shoplifters at stores across Tampa Bay, among other efforts.

Hermine and Matthew remind Florida how wet feels

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Kaleigh Black, 14, left, and Amber Olsen, 12, run for cover as a squall with rain and wind pelt them while they explore the Cocoa Beach Pier on Oct. 7 after Hurricane Mat Matthew rolled along Florida's east coast.

It had been 11 years since a hurricane made landfall on Florida's coast. Experts had warned of "hurricane amnesia."

Then Hurricane Hermine remembered the "forgotten coast," striking the Panhandle Sept. 2 with 64 mph winds and causing so much flood damage in Pasco it was deemed one of the most expensive disasters in the county's history.

Two more storms would hit Florida out of the 15 named storms that brewed in the Atlantic: Tropical Storm Colin and Hurricane Matthew. The first Category 5 hurricane out of the Atlantic since 2007, Matthew stayed just off shore as it whipped up Florida's east coast.

Still, experts said the storms inflicted about $1.6 billion worth of damage on the state.

Times buys and closes the Tampa Tribune

CHRIS URSO | Times

The empty Tampa Tribune newsroom is seen in May after the newspaper was purchased by the Tampa Bay Times.

In May, the Times bought the struggling Tampa Tribune, taking on its subscribers, advertisers and some of its staff, but halting 121 years of daily publication for a paper with deep ties to the community.

The Tribune had already been spun off by longtime owner Media General to California-based investors who sold its Hillsborough River location to be bulldozed for apartments.

Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash said the purchase would create one financially secure, locally owned newspaper for all of Tampa Bay, noting at the time, "The continued competition between the newspapers was threatening to both."

New Catholic bishop named to replace Robert Lynch

DIRK SHADD | Times

Retiring Bishop Robert Lynch, left, introduced Gregory L Parkes, the new bishop for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, at a news conference.

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Nugent Lynch, 75, and the Diocese of St. Petersburg learned the name of his replacement: Bishop Gregory L. Parkes.

Lynch served nearly 21 years as bishop for a diocese of half-million Roman Catholics, spread across the Tampa Bay area.

Parkes, 52, previously led the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese. He's a former banker who heard the call to the priesthood as a parishioner at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa.

He will be installed during an invitation-only service Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg.

Ground opens beneath Mosaic gypsum stack in Polk

JIM DAMASKE | Times

An aerial view of a massive sinkhole that opened beneath a gypsum stack at a Mosaic phosphate fertilizer plant in Mulberry dumped at least 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the Floridan Aquifer

Officials at the Mosaic phosphate plant near the Hillsborough-Polk County line knew by late August that a massive sinkhole had opened under one of their gypsum stacks, swallowing an estimated 215 million gallons of contaminated water.

But the public didn't learn about the threat to the Floridan Aquifer, the source of much of Florida's drinking water, for almost three weeks.

Mosaic officials said they were required only to report the event to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which also kept quiet about it. And Mosaic provided its neighbors with bottled water and free testing of their well water.

But at least three of the neighbors have filed suit against Mosaic. And Gov. Rick Scott told the DEP to come up with a new rule requiring notification of a pollution incident to the public within 24 hours.

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