Epic drought, Michael Vick arrest made big headlines

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ATLANTA --- This year's biggest story actually started quietly last year as a minor, if pesky, drought.

A dead fish rests on a piece of exposed lake bottom at Lake Allatoona in Emerson, Ga. The drought in the South fueled a battle for water among Georgia, Alabama and Florida governors.  Associated Press
Associated Press
A dead fish rests on a piece of exposed lake bottom at Lake Allatoona in Emerson, Ga. The drought in the South fueled a battle for water among Georgia, Alabama and Florida governors.

Feeding on sweltering summer temperatures and low rainfall, it has grown into a record drought that's tested the will of Georgia's leaders and threatened Atlanta's water supply.

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 led some Georgians to dig 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.

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.

Mr. Vick's arrest and the fallout that followed was the No. 2 story. Mr. 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.

The wildfires that started near Waycross and quickly spread into the Okefenokee Swamp was the third-ranked story. The fires burned 578,000 acres -- or 903 square miles -- in Georgia and Florida, and smoke wafted as far north as Atlanta in 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 that 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 No. 5 story was an unusual court ruling in an unusual case. Mr. Wilson was released from prison after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that his 10-year prison sentence for having consensual oral sex with a fellow teenager was 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 high court.

The mounting debt faced by Atlanta's public trauma center was ranked sixth. 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 as an independent carrier.

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 same day, residents in southwest Georgia were clearing the wreckage of tornadoes that killed at least nine people.

The 10th-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.

GEORGIA'S TOP 10

Eighteen Georgia newspaper and broadcast members of The Associated Press helped determine the top 10 stories of 2007. The ballots were tallied with 10 points given to each No. 1 vote, 9 points for each No. 2 vote, 8 points for each No. 3 vote, and so on. Number of first-place votes are in parentheses.

1. Southern drought: 179 (17)

2. Vick dogfighting: 132 (1)

3. Okefenokee wildfires: 107

4. Voter ID: 74

5. Teen sex case: 66

6. Trauma hospital: 65

7. Delta Air Lines: 57

8. Bus wreck: 44

9. Tornado: 42

10. Salmonella: 41

TOP STATE STORIES IN RECENT YEARS

2006: Illegal immigrants. Georgia was at the center of the national debate over U.S. immigration policy.

2005: Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane evacuees flee to Georgia.

2004: Hurricanes. It was one of the most damaging hurricane seasons in state history as Frances, Ivan and Jeanne hit Georgia.

2003: On the homefront. The 3rd Infantry based at Fort Stewart deploys 16,500 soldiers to the war in Iraq.

2002: Republican coup. For the first time since Reconstruction, a Republican (Sonny Perdue) is elected governor and the GOP takes control of the state Senate.

-- Associated Press

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