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Economy, drought top Georgia news in 2008

POSTED: December 31, 2008 9:40 a.m.
Associated Press photo/

The Imperial Sugar Co. refinery explosion in Savannah in February killed 14 works and injured dozens more.

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ATLANTA — The vast economic crisis has left scores of Georgia's houses empty, its banks shuttered and sent thousands of its residents searching for jobs even as its unemployment rate balloons to heights not seen since Ronald Reagan was president.
The nationwide recession was the top Georgia news story of 2008, according to state editors and news directors voting in The Associated Press' annual survey.
Other stories high on most lists included an energy crisis that sent gas prices on a roller-coaster ride, the U.S. Senate runoff that thwarted Democratic plans for a super-majority in the Senate and the months-long trial of courthouse gunman Brian Nichols. Yet the economic doldrums was the top choice for most of 12 Georgia AP members who participated in the news cooperative's survey.
Georgia residents began feeling the economic fallout early this year as a growing number of homes remained unsold and credit grew tighter. Firms fired workers, governments furloughed staffers, foreclosures spiked and the state unemployment rate soared to 7.5 percent — the highest in 25 years.
The bleak economy forced regulators to close down five state banks, and led Gov. Sonny Perdue to order spending cuts of at least 6 percent to narrow a deficit that could top $2 billion in 2009.
The new year is unlikely to bring much relief. State economists warn unemployment will climb higher and housing prices will continue to plummet through the first half of 2009.
Volatile energy prices were the No. 2 story of the year. The topsy-turvy fuel market sent the price of crude soaring to as high as $150 a barrel in July before crashing to $33 this month.
The jump in prices, which soared after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike shuttered Gulf Coast refineries, sparked panic among Georgia drivers. Gas stations advertised fuel at $8 a gallon, and some drivers camped out at gas stations to be first for new deliveries.
Georgia's seemingly endless U.S. Senate campaign notched the No. 3 spot.
Residents headed to the polls four times to vote on the Senate contest, beginning with the July primaries and ending with a Dec. 2 runoff when Saxby Chambliss was elected to a second Senate term.
The conviction and sentencing of Brian Nichols for a deadly shooting spree that began in the Fulton County Courthouse was the year's No. 4 story.
After more than three years and a tangled trail of legal delays, a jury found Nichols guilty of murder. But it deadlocked over whether he deserves the death penalty, forcing a judge to sentence him to life in prison without parole. Now some legislators are intent on changing the state's death penalty rules.
The stubborn drought still squeezing parts of the state emerged as the No. 5 story of the year. While a soggy December helped elevate most of the region from the epic conditions, much of north Georgia remains in a "severe" drought.
The No. 6 story was the deadly explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in February near Savannah that killed 14 workers and injured dozens more. Investigators determined the blast was caused by sugar dust that ignited like gunpowder in the plant's storage silos.
The presidential election, which dominated national headlines, was voted the No. 7 story in Georgia. Democrat Barack Obama's campaign recruited volunteers focused on turning the state blue, but Republican John McCain managed to claim Georgia's 15 electoral votes.
The No. 8 story of the year broke just hours after New Year's Day. Meredith Emerson was abducted while walking with her dog that day in the north Georgia mountains, and police later found her body. Authorities arrested Gary Michael Hilton, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to her murder.
The Delta Air Lines merger with Northwest Airlines took the No. 9 slot, as the combination made the Atlanta-based carrier the world's largest airline.
Clayton County's education woes was the year's 10-ranked story. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked the county's accreditation after it failed to meet a range of recommendations.
 

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