No one tells a better Florida story than the people who know this state intimately — either from living here or from engaging with Florida issues in a thoughtful way. As an annual tradition, we’ve compiled a list of stories for you, in no particular order, that highlights the most reflective and important reporting from Florida this year. We salute these hard-working journalists who endeavor to tell the critical stories of our beloved state.
By Sydney Czyzon and Max Chesnes, TCPalm
Why we recommend it: This investigation from the TCPalm details phosphorus levels far exceeding state pollution limits at hundreds of properties surrounding Lake Okeechobee. Reporters Sydney Czyzon and Max Chesnes analyzed data, maps, warning letters to noncompliant landowners, and hundreds of other documents, some obtained through state open records laws. They also interviewed nearly a dozen farmers, environmentalists, and public officials. Their investigation calls out some of the worst polluters in the region and questions the efficacy of the Basin Management Action Plans managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“The data proves — for the first time — that Florida’s flagship program to reduce water pollution isn’t working. And that pollution is contaminating waterways and sparking toxic algal blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
‘All one has to do is look at the water for the evidence,’ said Indian Riverkeeper Mike Conner, who heads a Treasure Coast nonprofit that advocates for clean water. ‘The impairment of Florida waters is now at an all-time high.’”
By Alex Harris, Miami Herald
Why we recommend it: While it’s nearly inevitable that Floridians will rebuild after storms destroy coastal communities, there are many questions around this cycle that need answers: What do these storms do to the property insurance industry? What about those who can’t afford to rebuild? What factors could lead communities to retreat instead? Alex Harris takes on answering these crucial questions and more in this story for the Miami Herald.
“The problem in Florida is that every extra foot of elevation, every swap to a new type of nail or impact window, is a fight. Stricter building standards save lives, but they also raise costs for home builders and home buyers.”
3. High Hazard
By Alan Halaly, WUFT: Watershed
Why we recommend it: A symbol of political conflict and environmental disruption, the Rodman Dam is a remnant of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal Project, which one of our namesakes, Marjorie Harris Carr, helped to stop during the pivotal 1970s environmental movement. While the Rodman Dam has halted the natural flow of water on the Ocklawaha River for half a century now, efforts by environmental activists to remove the dam have continued to persist. A safety report released in March has given the decades-long battle a renewed sense of urgency as activists grow more concerned that the aging dam may endanger fragile ecosystems as well as hundreds of rural homeowners. Alan Halaly speaks to local residents, activists, and water managers who talk about what will happen if the dam breaches. With animated graphics to tell the story, Alan unfolds the history and impact of this ominous structure.
“Advocates say taking down the dam would be a boon to local ecology: 20 lost natural springs could flow again; six historic fish and shellfish species returned; Ocala’s Silver Springs rejuvenated; migration patterns and warm habitats for manatees and other marine life opened up.
Every three to four years, water managers lower water levels in the reservoir about 10 feet to kill off invasive aquatic plant species like hydrilla that may interfere with fish. What lies below is a graveyard of what’s been lost: nearly 8,000 acres of flooded forest, stumps rotted off at the pool’s high water mark and some of the 20 naturally occurring freshwater springs, crushed by 21 billion gallons of water the dam holds back.”
By Zachary Sampson, Bethany Barnes, Kirby Wilson, and Lauren Peace, Tampa Bay Times
Why we recommend it: Harrowing and heart wrenching — readers are exposed to the traumatic first-person experiences of residents who decided to remain in Fort Myers during Hurricane Ian. Tampa Bay Times staff examine why people choose to stay and the costs they face. As cataclysmic hurricanes continue to increase in strength and frequency, this article presents an important reminder to Floridians that sometimes no preparation is enough for staying home, weathering, or even surviving these deadly storms.
“Hurricane survivors say you have to live the horror to really grasp it. People imagine water in familiar terms: the deep end of a swimming pool, or the waves they cruise atop on boogie boards.
But storm surge is more like being dropped in the open ocean as swells crash around you. The water rises — and rises. It tosses huge chunks of furniture, vehicles, and roofs, battering any buildings that manage to stay standing.”
By Jenny Staletovich and Nick Underwood, NPR
Why we recommend it: We were thrilled to see Florida environmental journalist Jenny Staletovich join data reporter Nick Underwood to cover a pressing issue about our state through a national outlet. This story looks at how weakened regulations governing development can cascade into serious loss of life during major storms. With daunting photos of damage from Hurricane Ian and a detailed graphic on storm surge flooding in Southwest Florida, readers are provided a close look at Florida’s increasingly crowded and vulnerable coastal areas and the dire need for better-managed protection against climate impacts.
“Now, in the wake of the Category 4 hurricane, state and local leaders have promised to rebuild. Stronger building codes like the kind created after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew will make the area more resilient to future storms, they say. But climate and planning experts warn that rebuilding along the crowded coast, following a decade of weakened rules governing development, is what helped create the disaster now unfolding.
Specifically, they point to Florida’s decision in 2011 to abolish the state agency that managed risky development even as threats from climate change deepened.”
By Claire Heddles, Jacksonville Today
Why we recommend it: Reporter Claire Heddles worked closely with north Florida’s Gullah/Geechee community to highlight the fight for access to Crandall Cemetery, a historic Gullah/Geechee cemetery on property zoned for a sprawling resort development called Wildlight in the small town of Yulee. This case is just one part of a larger story of cultural displacement and erasure of Gullah/Geechee communities. Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins wrote about her own experience of cultural displacement several miles from Crandall Cemetery in The Marjorie’s “Dispatches from a Sinking State” series earlier this year.
“I refuse to be erased, because this place was built on the backs of our foreparents and our fathers,” says Elder Gloria Thomas, with the Gullah/Geechee Nation Wisdom Circle Council of Elders. Her dad drove pulp wood trucks for Rayonier. She is among the descendants fighting for access to and protection of burial grounds in Nassau County, adding new friction in an ongoing battle between the county and Rayonier over Wildlight.
By Cynthia Barnett, Hakai Magazine
Why we recommend it: Come for the rich history behind queen conchs, stay for beautiful, intricate writing by one of Florida’s most celebrated environmental journalists. Cynthia Barnett takes us on a deep dive through a queen conch hatchery in Puerto Rico as we meet the people trying to conserve this amazing creature and learn the lasting value of connecting local residents to the center of conservation efforts.
“Davis loved Espinoza’s approach of paying fishers for their expertise and labor. He thought locally run queen conch hatcheries would make ideal proving grounds for normalizing compensation to fishers. ‘There are ways to share benefits — to bring them on board and help them generate income from their expertise — just like the rest of us make a living from our expertise,’ Espinoza says. ‘It is fundamental to making the fishing community part of conservation policy and it is fundamental to environmental justice.’”
By Diane Roberts, The Atlantic
Why we recommend it: For anyone who has felt frustrated by environmental degradation and political theatrics in Florida, this piece will echo your anguish. A Florida native talks about the costs of letting everyone have a piece of our beloved state. From sharing personal anecdotes of growing up and experiencing the natural wonders of this unique peninsula to addressing the refusal of elected leaders to acknowledge climate change impacts, Diane Roberts speaks to a collective concern many residents feel in grappling with Florida’s future.
“In Florida’s beauty lies Florida’s downfall. For more and more people to live here, we must destroy more and more of the land.”
By Annie Martin and Mario Alejandro Ariza, Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight
Why we recommend it: Grab your cookies as some serious tea is being spilled in this excellent investigative report that covers whistleblowing accounts of a power utility company’s efforts to monitor and intimidate journalists. This story reveals the tactics corporations can employ to pressure journalists as well as the significant influence utility companies have on elections and policy.
“While surveilling journalists is commonplace in some parts of the world, it’s happening more frequently in the United States, said Ted Bridis, a journalism instructor at the University of Florida. A former Associated Press investigative editor whose phone records were seized by the FBI a decade ago, Bridis said harassment of journalists is escalating, facilitated by a ‘new era of political divisiveness.’
‘The fact that this kind of behavior could be taking place in Florida, allegedly by people with ties to the largest energy company, should shock the conscience,’ he said.”
By Craig Pittman, Florida Phoenix
Why we recommend it: Legendary Florida writer Craig Pittman tells the “reeeeeally weird” story of one company’s quest to turn a citrus grove into a limestone mine and, when that fails, their push to build a dense residential and commercial development in the middle of a rural area. In this commentary, Pittman makes us laugh and groan with his easy-to-digest explanation of a policy that allows developers to commit shady acts that send nearby neighbors into a state of disbelief.
“More than one person who contacted me hinted that there was some political chicanery afoot. I can’t tell you whether the Corkscrew plan is legal or illegal. But what I can say is that it’s about the slickest end-run I’ve seen since the football season ended.”
By Carlton Ward Jr., Flamingo Magazine
Why we recommend it: As a child, acclaimed conservation photographer and founder of the Florida Wildlife Corridor project Carlton Ward, Jr. loved watching cowboys perform prescribed burns on their ranchlands. Now that he understands the importance fire plays in supporting biodiversity, he loves the burns even more. Ward describes the generational knowledge and joy that passed down from working with his father on their ranch to now seeing his own children build their own memories on the same land. This piece is short and sweet, and it gets at the heart of the generational pride many of us feel for Florida’s diverse landscape.
“When I looked back, Eldridge had picked up my phone and climbed onto the roof to capture photos of her own. Right then, focusing on my kids, seeing ninth-generation Floridians building connections with a place that helped shape me, there was a moment worth remembering. The pines we since planted there are for them and their cousins, to grow tall and spread their canopies to fill in the space between the remnant sentinels standing in silhouette that morning after the burn.”
By Charles Bethea, The New Yorker
Why we recommend it: When Hurricane Ian slammed into the Southwest Florida coast in September, the island of Sanibel was devastated with damage. Sanibel is one of those places in Florida that many people across the country have some connection to — maybe they remember visiting its pristine beaches as a child or they have a family member who still resides there. New Yorker writer Charles Bethea is one such person, and his family connections to the island have engendered in him a fondness for the island that many of us can relate to. Bethea discusses the pros and cons of “managed retreat” as he surveys the wreckage and hears from the island’s residents on how they envision staying on Sanibel as its future becomes increasingly uncertain.
“‘After a hurricane, the first response of any local politician is ‘We’re gonna rebuild,’’ Flemma told me. ‘Nobody wants to be the local decision-maker to say, ‘Maybe we should think about whether rebuilding is even a good idea?’’”
Cover image by Jason Matthew Walker