The Florida Roundup Looks Back On The Biggest News Of 2017

Dec 29, 2017

A lot has happened in the past 365 days.

A Category 4 hurricane plowed across the Florida Keys. President Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cubans. The death toll related to Florida's opioid epidemic climbed higher. Venezuela sank further into economic and social chaos.

For the last episode of The Florida Roundup in 2017, editorial page editors from the Miami Herald, the Sun Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post — Nancy Ancrum, Rosemary O’Hara and Rick Christie — sat down with WLRN's Tom Hudson to review the year’s biggest news stories. 

South Florida and Hurricane Irma: The storm engulfed the entire Florida peninsula, complicating planning, preparation and recovery. The threat of the hurricane's projected destructive winds and high storm surges led to historic evacuation orders. 

"South Florida and the entire state were looking west at Harvey," Ancrum said. While the flooding in Texas "was not necessarily the scenario we were going to face, I think it caused all of us to whip into shape."

The worst of the property damage was isolated to the lower Keys. But what unfolded in the days after the storm at a Hollywood nursing home proved fatal. The facility lost electricity during the storm, knocking out its air conditioning and leaving vulnerable patients to deal with high temperatures inside the building.  

Residents are evacuated from the powerless Hollywood Hills Nursing Home, 1200 N 35th Ave.
Credit Caitlin Ostroff / Miami Herald

The Broward County Medical Examiner said the cause of deaths for the 12 patients at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was environmental heat exposure.

"It's clear that the nursing home didn't respond to the crisis appropriately as its patients were beginning their swift decline," O'Hara said. "There should be better processes in place for responding to emergencies than to call the governor’s cellphone." 

The Opioid Crisis: Hundreds of people have died, local governments spent millions of dollars on emergency services and the local medical community was flooded with addicts who became victims.

“It's not like we're seeing more homicides or more traffic fatalities or more drownings,” Dr. Michael Bell, the medical examiner in Palm Beach County, told WLRN in July. “It's just opioid overdoses.”

In 2016, there were 600 opioid-related deaths in Palm Beach County. In 2017, that number hit more than 700 and counting. 

Palm Beach County State Attorney David Aronberg traveled to Washington D.C. to testify before Congress about the seriousness of the epidemic, Christie said. Christie said Aronberg made sure to emphasize that local government "cannot do this alone. This problem is too big. It's growing too fast."

Read more: Sunny Daze, Inside Florida's Opioid Crisis

In May, Gov. Rick Scott declared the state in a health care emergency for the opioid crisis. Since then, both Broward and Palm Beach counties have joined more than 100 cities, counties and states taking legal action against drug companies.

“I think it's right for the pharmaceutical industry to be held accountable just as the tobacco industry was held accountable for what it marketed,” O’Hara said. 

Political Scandals: Florida Democrats got two new leaders. In January, Stephen Biddle was elected to lead the party, but was forced out after he was accused of creating a toxic workplace environment for women. He was replaced by Terrie Rizzo, the head of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party. 

In April, Miami Republican Sen. Frank Artiles refused to step down after he used racist and sexist language with two African-American legislators in Tallahassee. He resigned in the midst of this spring's legislative session. 

In a special election in September, Miami Democrat Annette Taddeo coasted to victory in the race to replace Artiles. "They [Democrats] have every right to throw some confetti here, but they have a lot of work to do," Ancrum said. "They need candidates that have traction. They need candidates that resonate. Are they letting someone like [2016 U.S. Senate candidate] Pam Keith just kind of fall off the radar?" 

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco began the year with his eyes on the mayor's office. By October, he had resigned his seat on the commission as he cut a plea deal with prosecutors over accepting an illegal campaign donation.

The end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy: Just days before President Barack Obama left office in January, he ended the 20-year-old incentive for Cuban refugees to take to the Florida Straits hoping to make it to Florida.

Six months later, President Donald Trump announced he was making it harder for Americans to travel and to business with communist Cuba.

President Donald Trump signed his Cuba policy directive at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami on June 16, 2017.
Credit Al Diaz / Miami Herald

"We did not come down hard on the reimposition of some of these restrictions because we have been very disappointed with Cuba's response to normalization, which is business as usual," Ancrum said. 

Meanwhile in Venezuela, the economy has gone from bad to worse with hyperinflation, a chronic shortage of food and medicine, a democratic collapse and a developing dictatorship. Most recently, credit rating agencies declared the country in default on its $150 billion foreign debt. 

"It is remarkable what's happened in Venezuela in such a short time. It has collapsed into anarchy," O'Hara said.