Irma recovery, a stolen gold bar and a call from God. Here are the Top 25 Keys stories

Big Pine Key continues to rebuild one year after Hurricane Irma

The residents of Big Pine Key were left devastated after Hurricane Irma tore into the island on Sept. 10, 2017.
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The residents of Big Pine Key were left devastated after Hurricane Irma tore into the island on Sept. 10, 2017.

In the year that followed Hurricane Irma, the Keys continued to feel the direct and indirect effects of the Category 4 storm, retrace the government’s steps in the disaster, deal with a Keyswide housing crunch, make the tourism industry rebound and withstand some serious crimes.

Here are the top 25 stories of 2018 from the Florida Keys.

1. Irma recovery

1. One year after Hurricane Irma struck Sept. 10, 2017, some Keys residents continued to rebuild.

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Christine King sits in front of her FEMA trailer that replaced the home she lost to Hurricane Irma’s wrath on Big Pine Key. Pedro Portal. pportal@miamiherald.com.

2. Housing crunch

In May, then-Gov. Rick Scott helped hand the Keys 1,300 permits to build new workforce housing, as people struggled to stay in Monroe County and rents soared amid the housing crunch. But some elected leaders found the offer to be a headache for government.

3. Key lime pie controversy

We all know Key lime pie was invented in the Keys, right? Well, not everyone agrees. A cookbook author rattled a Key West expert on the pie this year.

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Un participante en el concurso de comer Key lime pie, en una imagen de Florida Keys News Bureau del 4 de julio del 2018. Rob O'Neal AP

4. Military jet crash

A U. S. Navy F/A-18F Superhornet fighter jet crashed in the water near the Naval Air Station Key West in March, killing the two Naval aviators on board. The two crew members were ejected. A Navy spokesman this month said no crash report is available yet.

5. Stolen gold bar

Two out-of-towners stole a 17th century gold bar that had been found in a shipwreck off of Key West from a local museum. They had it melted down to be sold off but a small piece was recovered by police. A judge sent them both to prison, saying they destroyed a priceless artifact.

The 17th century gold bar stolen from a Key West museum in 2010 is valued at $550,000. Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum

6. Big Pine Key

Big Pine Key, one of the hardest-hit areas by Irma — along with Marathon — remained filled with resilient residents who said they’re not going anywhere. In FEMA trailers and tents, Big Piners kept fighting to stay at home after the storm.

7. Tourist tragedy

The Keys made international headlines in March after four women from Spain vacationing in South Florida were killed after their rental car was hit from behind by a commercial box truck. The impact pushed their car into oncoming traffic on U.S. 1 and into the path of an RV, which totaled the car, killing everyone inside.

8. Brush fire

To add insult to injury after Irma, Big Pine residents were hit with a brush fire that burned for one week on part of the island. Some residents were forced to battle the blaze themselves. Only one home was ruined, but one resident called the experience an Irma flashback.

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A house owned by Chris Arsenault burned down in an area of Big Pine Key that was affected by a brush fire that lasted for a week. This view of the home’s devastation is from Friday, April 27, 2018. While many people continued to cope with their losses after Hurricane Irma, the wildfire threatened their community again and fueled new fears. Pedro Portal

9. Exodus

A report released in September, one year after Irma laid low much of the Keys, showed many people left Monroe County and never came back. The Keys lost 4 percent of its population in the aftermath of the devastating storm.

10. Hotel and restaurant recovery

A year after Irma, Keys’ hotels and restaurants showed strong signs of rebounding. But, many challenges remain, including how to attract more help in the face of increasing housing prices and rents.

11. Hospital hit

Marathon’s Fishermen’s Community Hospital took a knockout blow from Irma. With the roof peeled off, local leaders called for a new $40 million hospital and the county commission approved a new tax district to help fund Fishermen’s Community Hospital.

12. Cottages

“Keys Cottages” began going up on Big Pine Key. The project for nine homes in the Avenues neighborhood is the work of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust, which a philanthropic couple started after Irma hit.

The Florida Community Land Trust unveiled the first of nine planned “Keys Cottages” on Big Pine Key. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

13. Murder-for-hire case

In 2014, a retired U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer, and former commander of Coast Guard Station Islamorada, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for arranging a murder-for-hire plot on a Marathon businessman. The FBI released unredacted transcripts in July that revealed a rival business owner was mentioned in conversations with the hired hit man as being the possible money man behind the scheme.

14. Duval Street shooting

The national firearms legal debate came to the Keys in May when the verdict of a Key West shooting case, in which a man opened fire on a Duval Street crowd, hitting three people he did not know, was reconsidered in the wake of an appeals court interpretation of Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law.

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Monroe County Sheriff’s Office court deputies take Derek David’s fingerprints Wednesday, June 6, 2018, at the Plantation Key courthouse after he was sentenced to 18 years in prison on three counts of attempted manslaughter. He opened fire into a busy Key West crowd, shooting and wounding three Key West tourists in March 2016. David Goodhue dgoodhue@flkeysnews.com

15. Scott’s defeat

While Broward hogged the spotlight in this year’s heated mid-term election season, the Keys briefly offered a distraction when it was revealed that Rick Scott, who dashed Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s re-election hopes, lost in the heavily Republican Monroe County by one vote.

16. Rob Stewart death

The scuba diving death of famed Toronto conservationist and filmmaker Rob Stewart off Islamorada in early 2017 once again brought international attention to the Keys. Court documents released this year raised serious questions over the motivations of the team who recovered Stewart’s body.

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A U.S. Coast Guard crewman searches the water off Islamorada Wednesday for any signs of documentary filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart, who went missing diving the deep-water wreck of the Queen of Nassau Tuesday. USCG photo

17. Shipwreck

Hurricane Irma took away plenty, but there were some positive outcomes. The storm unveiled remnants of an 1887 Austrian ship wreck on the reef off Key Largo. A group of volunteer divers whose original mission was documenting ships involved in the African slave trade helped preserve the find in June.

18. Message in a bottle

The storm also turned up a message in a bottle in Key Largo that was thrown into the North Sea by Scottish elementary school students in the 1980s.

19. Fishing fleet

The Upper Keys’ famed charter fishing fleet was particularly hard hit by Irma. More than a year on, it remains unclear if the industry will ever fully recover.

20. Missing men

Two men sailed from a Lower Keys marina two years ago. Early the next morning, the boat was found, but the men remain missing to this day, and the family of one of them has not given up looking for their son and brother.

21. Key West mayor’s race

Key West voters elected a new mayor, the former two-time city commissioner Teri Johnston, who beat former one-term city commissioner Margaret Romero in the Nov. 6 runoff by winning 66 percent of the vote. Equality Florida made note of Johnston being an openly lesbian politician who won office but locals shrugged it off, citing Key West’s decades-long practice of acceptance of LGBTQ people. Mayor Craig Cates, first elected in 2009, was term-limited. City leaders named him Mayor Emeritus, a rare honor in Key West.

Teri Johnston, center, listens at a political forum earlier this year in Key West. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

22. Call from God

A Key West candidate took a phone call from God during a political forum. A perennial non-favorite, Sloan Bashinsky said God tells him to run for office.

23. Murder mystery

The year ended on a grisly note when the naked body of a woman was found in the woods near the Vaca Cut Bridge in Marathon the day before Thanksgiving. While a suspect was found almost immediately, it would be another week until the police were able to identify the victim using her fingerprints.

24. Crocodiles

For years, the resurgence of the American saltwater crocodile was hailed by wildlife officials and conservationists, and locals were told to deal with their toothy neighbors lurking in Keys canals. Fast forward a few years and several pets that became meals for the crocs, state officials now want to make life uncomfortable for the reptiles in an effort to make them move away from people.

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A crocodile turned up near mile marker 106 in Key Largo early Wednesday morning. Monroe County Sheriff’s Office

25. Deportation suit

A Keys man was almost deported to Jamaica after a stay at a Monroe County jail even though he hails from Philadelphia. He’s suing Sheriff Rick Ramsay, who blamed the feds for the near mishap.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.