Southeast Georgia’s biggest stories of 2019

Political changes, weather challenges, divisive trial & massive shipwreck dominate news

The temperature was turned up in Georgia this year, and it showed up on more than just thermometers. Yes, record highs were recorded and droughts plagued parts of the state for nearly half the year. But political rhetoric that has become the norm in the Nation’s Capital also heated up in Georgia as a new Republican governor and a solidly conservative Legislature faced a strengthening Democratic opposition demanding to be heard on voters’ rights, abortion restrictions, gun control and other issues.

Here’s a look back at some of the most-covered and talked-about events and issues of the year:

Surviving Mother Nature

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Devastation from the extreme weather that tore through central Georgia down to North Florida

A tornado and other extreme weather ripped across Camden, Glynn and Ware counties in April, setting the tone for a year of wild weather in our corner of the Peach State. In one spring afternoon, a mobile home in Waycross was destroyed, a semi on the causeway to St. Simons Island was blown onto its side and a tornado took out the front wall of a Badcock store in Kingsland.

Near historic low rainfall between early June through early October led to a busy wildfire season and crop losses for South Georgia farmers. Brunswick recorded its highest-ever temperatures in both May and September.

Over Labor Day Weekend, a half-million Georgia residents living east of Interstate 95 were ordered to evacuate as Hurricane Dorian approached. Despite this being the third coastal evacuation in the last four years, seeing the devastation this monster storm caused in the northern Bahamas as it neared the U.S. coast, residents didn’t take any chances.

“This storm is bigger than any we’ve seen," Gov. Brian Kemp said in Brunswick as the then Category 3 storm turned northwest, approaching the Florida coast.

Most schools in most counties in Southeast Georgia closed for three days, but the storm stayed off the coast a little east of 2016′s Hurricane Matthew and caused little but inconvenience.

Even after Brian Kemp was inaugurated as Georgia's 83rd governor in 2019, challenger continued to speak out on issues as the de facto leader of the state's Democratic Party. (Getty Images)

Winds of political change in deep-red Georgia?

After a bitter governor’s race pitted the Republican secretary of state who ran Georgia’s elections against a Democratic voters’ rights activist was decided by just 58,000 votes -- Georgia’s closest race in a half-century -- more changed in 2019 than just a Brian Kemp moving into the Governor’s Mansion.

Challenger Stacey Abrams didn’t go away quietly, becoming the de facto leader of the state’s Democratic Party. The former minority leader of the Georgia Legislature continued to fight efforts to purge voter rolls -- fighting plans to drop 330,000 voter registration as 2020 approached -- to register and empower existing voters across the state and create opportunities for women and people of color.

The way Georgians vote is also changing fast. The state is up against a court-ordered deadline to retire the state’s outdated, paperless voting system before any ballots are cast in 2020. Election officials are working to distribute more than 33,000 new voting machines that combine touchscreen voting with printed ballots in all 159 counties.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s surprise retirement for health reasons in 2019 created a rare situation where both of Georgia’s Senate seats will be on the ballot in 2020, creating speculation that one of them could be a competitive seat for a Democratic candidate for the first time in a generation.

Earlier this month, Kemp appointed wealthy businesswoman and political newcomer Kelly Loeffler to fill the last year of Isakson’s term and face whoever emerges from the Democratic Primary in May.

Abrams has said she won’t run for Senate, but dozens of candidates are eyeing one of the seats, including Jack Kingston, who represented the 1st Congressional District seat for Coastal Georgia for 22 years and was runner-up in the 2014 Republican race for Senate.

Former two-term U.S. Senator and two-term governor Zell Miller died in March at age 86. Miller’s relatives announced last year that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Another political flashpoint in 2019 was the passage of the so-called “heartbeat” abortion bill to outlaw most abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, around six weeks into pregnancy and before many women might know they are pregnant. The law also grants certain economic and legal rights to an embryo.

Georgia’s House Bill 481, and similar laws passed this year in other states, were blocked by federal courts pending an appeal. The law also threatened to derail Georgia’s lucrative film and television production industry, with Hollywood producers and media companies threatening to take their business elsewhere if the restrictive abortion law was implemented. With the abortion law in legal limbo, film production continued unabated in the state.

Another issue where the state’s Democrats think their candidates can gain traction is gun control. It was perhaps the prime issue Lucy McBath -- mother of Jordan Davis, the 17-year-old shot and killed by a man outside a Jacksonville convenience store seven years ago -- used in her successful campaign to an open suburban Atlanta congressional district formerly held by Republicans.

And Georgia’s Republican insurance commissioner was indicted in May on federal charges of wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering. A 38-count indictment accused Jim Beck of orchestrating an elaborate invoicing scheme to steal more than $2 million from his former employer. Beck has declared his innocence, pleaded not guilty to the charges, and voluntarily suspended himself from office shortly after the indictment.

Can’t keep a good Georgian down

The only Georgian ever elected president of the United States continued to make news 38 years after leaving office. When Jimmy Carter, now 95, is not at his Carter Center in Atlanta, building a Habitat for Humanity home or an invited guest at historic transitions in Washington, Jimmy Carter still lives in a modest home in his hometown of Plains. He still teaches Sunday school every two weeks when he can.

Carter was in the headlines first in March when he became the longest-living former president. But he stayed in the news throughout the year mostly due to repeated hospitalizations, some the result of falls that led to pelvic fractures, swelling on the brain and infections. As the year closed, as Carter was on the mend from his most recent health challenge -- a urinary tract infection -- the entire Georgia Congressional Delegation introduced a bill to re-designate the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains as the “Jimmy Carter National Historical Park.”

Photo of Officer Zechariah Presley, released by the Kingsland Police Department through an open records request, and a family photo of Tony Green, who was shot and killed in a June 2018 traffic stop.

Kingsland officer not guilty of manslaughter in shooting death of unarmed man

In October, a Camden County jury found former Georgia police officer Zachariah Presley not guilty of manslaughter for fatally shooting 33-year-old Tony Green as he ran from a June 20, 2018, traffic stop.

In the October trial, the jury deliberated for three days before finding Presley only guilty of violating his oath of office -- for which he was sentenced to five years but will only serve one year behind bars. That did not satisfy Green’s family and supporters, who held signs and chanted after the trial.

“The man that murdered my son gets to go home to his sons," Presley’s father, Wayne Anderson, told News4Jax after the verdict. “This ought to serve notice to a lot of our young black men and black men, period, that you can run up and down the football field, you can run on down the courts, you can hit baseballs, you can do it. But at the end of the day, when I see you, they see a black man.”

The only African-American juror told the judge she was ill and asked to be excused during the final day of deliberations. She later told News4Jax that she felt threatened and described the process as "very hostile.” She said it was that stress that made her sick.

“I am not surprised by the verdict because while I was in there, I was pretty much the only one that went for the guilty plea,” the juror said.

Presley’s attorney said she was unhappy Green was found guilty of anything and said she will appeal the violation-of-oath conviction.

Mayday: Vehicle cargo ship capsizes in Brunswick shipping channel

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. - The Golden Ray will be disassembled in place after maritime experts have determined it is not possible to safely right and refloat the vessel in a fully intact condition, according to a news release from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Large roll on/roll off cargo ships carrying thousands of cars have quietly moved in and out of the Port of Brunswick for years, making it the second-largest “RoRo” auto importing port in the United States. But after the M/V Golden Ray, carrying 4,200 vehicles, began listing in the channel and overturned on St. Simons Sound at 2 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, suddenly, the eyes of the state, nation and world were on Brunswick.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Glynn County first responders quickly rescued 19 of 23 South Korean crew members and the local harbor pilot who were on board the capsized ship. Over the next 36 hours, specialized rescue and salvage workers cut through the hull in what was described as a heroic effort that freed the last four crew members.

The magnitude of the shipwreck within sight of one of the area’s most visited beach destinations and the dramatic rescue made this our biggest news story of Southeast Georgia this year. Continuing environmental issues and efforts to safely remove the 656-foot ship will keep the Golden Ray in the news well into 2020.

We’d like to hear your thoughts on the most important stories affecting Southeast Georgia this year. Comment below or join our News4Georgia community on Facebook to share.

About the Author:

Digital election producer in 2022. He created in 1995 and managed The Local Station's website through 2021.