Stories of 2009: A look back at the year's top headlines

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Floods set records

After nearly a week of rain, severe urban flash floods ravaged Gwinnett on Sept. 21, destroying homes and businesses, closing roads, shutting down schools and killing a Lawrenceville woman, trapped in her car when it was swept into a creek.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the area hardest hit by rain that morning was Lawrenceville, where about 7 inches fell within 24 hours. That amount nearly eclipsed the 7.7 inches considered to be a rain event that occurs only once every 100 years -- and that was before the second wave of the storm passed through the county.

The history-making flood left a destructive mark across metro Atlanta, but it also created a wake of stories about people who reached out to help those affected by the flood.

- Residents in awe of torrent

- When will it ever stop? Rains expected to slacken after today

School system named prize finalist

Gwinnett County Public Schools didn't bring home the Broad Prize for Urban Education in September from Washington, D.C. That honor was given to the Aldine Independent School District in Texas.

But as a finalist for the nation's largest education award, school officials still felt like winners. The Houston-area school district got the $1 million top prize, but Gwinnett still received $250,000 in college scholarships for graduating seniors who show financial need and academic improvement.

Being selected as a finalist for the award is an honor for any of the 100 large school systems eligible for the prize, which honors school districts that demonstrate the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement, especially for minority and low-income students. Only five school systems in the nation are selected as finalists each year.

- Broad Prize for Urban Education: GCPS top finalist for honor

- Our View: GCPS deserving of national honor

Shackelford dies

In September, Gwinnett lost one of the men who shaped its history.

Wayne Shackelford, the son of a sharecropper who served as the county administrator before becoming the head of the Georgia Department of Transportation through the 1990s, died at age 75.

In addition to steering the county through one of its biggest periods of growth in the 1970s and leading the DOT during the 1996 Olympic Games, Shackelford left his impression on thousands of youngsters by spending decades promoting and coordinating livestock shows at the Gwinnett County Fair.

In 2007, the newly built interchange at Interstate 85 and Ga. Highway 316 was named in Shackelford's honor.

- County leader Shackelford leaves legacy

287(g) implemented

In November, Gwinnett's sheriff finally got the go-ahead to use a federal tool to crack down on illegal immigration.

The 287(g) program in which deputies are trained to begin deportation proceedings on illegal immigrants housed in the Gwinnett County Jail was implemented after a yearlong application process.

While some residents decried the method as an end result of racial profiling, Sheriff Butch Conway said the tool will help relieve the overcrowded county jail.

- Sheriff hails start of 287(g)

- Forum decries 287(g)

open-heart program coming soon

The most populated county in the nation without an open-heart surgery program is on track to have that condition remedied.

After a two-year battle, Gwinnett Medical Center can move forward with its plans to implement an open-heart surgery program on its Lawrenceville campus. The final roadblock fell away in September, when Atlanta hospitals dropped their lawsuits opposing the program.

Coming off the opening of its new north tower the same month, GMC plans to open its heart center in 2011.

- Emory drops open-heart lawsuit

Stadium opens

In April, Gwinnett's new Triple-A stadium opened to much buzz.

The minor league Braves' season was deemed a success, but by the end of the year, the economy showed dismal returns on the county's investment.

Parking fees brought in only $31,000 of the expected $200,000, and naming rights for the stadium were never sold. With rental car taxes, ticket surcharges and payments from the Braves and the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau, officials said they are not worried about paying back the bonds sold to build the $64 million stadium.

For many troubled by the county's economic situation and budget cuts, the stadium became a rallying cry.

Yet, a grand jury ruled in September that the deal passed muster, declining to investigate the project.

- Ribbon cut on stadium

Millage rate to increase

Gwinnett's tax debate permeated local politics for most of 2009.

Commissioners knew tax rates would be on the agenda even before the January decision to delay adoption of the year's spending plan and the March budget adoption that precluded a need for more money.

In May, residents protested, and in June, the first of two 2009 millage rate tax proposals was rejected.

After spending the summer slashing services, delaying the opening of fire stations and planning layoffs, officials went before a judge to issue temporary tax bills.

Then, after another public outcry, this time over cuts, another millage rate increase was proposed.

Despite mixed reviews from residents and another raucous round of public hearings, commissioners voted Dec. 1 to raise the millage rate for the first time in more than a decade.

Homeowners will pay the taxes in 2010 -- with a supplemental 2009 tax bill to cover the 2.28 mill increase slated to go out in March on top of the regular 2010 bills next fall.

- Official: Tax could stop millage hike

- Residents react to mill hike

- Board approves tax increase

Drug war hits home

Gwinnett became the epicenter of a North American drug war in 2010 -- twice.

The county became the site of the largest meth seizure of its kind in the eastern United States in May, and in October, it was center of the largest takedown operation targeting a Mexican drug cartel in the history of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Raids of two Duluth "stash houses" netted more than 350 pounds of meth and one kilo of cocaine this spring. The drugs were reported to have an estimated value of close to $8 million, and four suspected members of a Mexican drug cartel were arrested.

And in the fall, a raid at a Lawrenceville home netted 174 pounds of crystal meth, firearms and $54,000.

In what the DEA called Project Coronado, 31 suspected members of a Mexican drug cartel were arrested in Gwinnett alone. The operation netted 303 arrests nationwide, dealing a crippling blow to the ruthless "La Familia Michoacana," a DEA agent said.

- Georgia's problem with meth - A closer look at the 'monster' drug

- Local man charged with making meth in car

Plane crash rocks neighborhood

On the afternoon of Oct. 30, the tranquility of Lawrenceville's Southern Trace subdivision was shattered when a twin-engine Cessna headed for Atlanta crashed into a home, killing the pilot and a resident of the home.

About 1:13 p.m., the plane lost altitude, and after clipping a tree in the yard next door, slammed into the garage area of the Walker Drive residence. Judy Kirchner, 62, was killed inside while her husband escaped without injury.

A next-door neighbor, who restrained Kirchner's husband from going back into the burning home for his wife, described the couple as "very nice people" and "good neighbors," calling the day "tragic" and "tough."

The crash also killed the pilot, Dr. James Wardlaw, a 58-year-old optometrist from Tennessee.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have not yet determined a cause for the crash.

- 'Tragic, tough day': Plane crashes into home, killing 2

Outcry over libraries

Gwinnett library services were threatened in 2009 due to impending budget constraints.

Branch hours were cut in August, the opening of the new Hamilton Mill location was in jeopardy and the library board considered closing the Dacula branch in September, a consideration that resulted in a public outcry.

The plan was retooled into a proposal for a regional system that would have converted three of the existing branches to computer labs, an option that was also abandoned, with the library board voting to maintain its current branches with reduced hours.

Due to a recent vote to increase county taxes, the GCPL expects to be able to extend hours and sought public input in December to set a new schedule.

- Library board to address Dacula branch closure

- Book battle cry: Hundreds rally to save Dacula library from closing