Tag Archives: Florida

Migration Home 2018 – Leaving Florida

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Kack Rudloe, Jane Brand Misty, Rita and me with Dick taking the picture after our last beach walk of 2018.

We had a lovely nearly three month stretch in Florida. The first week was warm like spring with temperatures reaching the 80s (27C) every afternoon. We arrived to discover that Bugula neritina was in full bloom and Gulf Specimen Marine Lab had an order for 1000 pounds so everyone was busy gathering the purple stuff. The temperatures dropped in time for Christmas and everyone disappeared for their holiday time with family. We were privileged to join the Skye Rudloe’s in laws, the Haberfields, for a lovely dinner. As the weeks went on, we regularly feasted on special southern coastal delicacies like the award winning hot fish dip made with mullet, grouper and sheep’s head fish, fresh veggies (especially jalapino peppers) and secret herbs that make a literally award winning combination.

The cold came and with it the great turtle rescue. Soon after that the great turtle release. I am very glad we were able to be a part of that. After that, the heat came back and and humidity. We were soon gasping every afternoon and sweating without blankets at night, praying for a cross breeze. The Floridians laughed at our discomfort over heat in the mere 80s. We had several days with very heavy rains and the humidity stayed near 100% for days at a time and everything in the trailer began developing a dank smell. My asthma flared and I was mildly wheezing constantly and living from antihistamine to antihistamine. The no-see-ums and deer ticks awoke with a vengeance and I spent time walking the corral and sprinkling poison on the rapidly sprouting fire ant hills. Every day we went to one of the local beaches to walk and enjoyed the sun and fresh air but the climate had shifted to uncomfortable. While I hated the thought of leaving my friends, I was beginning to really look forward to heading north.

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Monsoon time in the corral looking at the guest house.

March 1 arrived and it was time to hitch up and begin our trip home. We decided to repeat last year’s nice trip. We would take the trip in our now favourite long and slow manner. This means trying to not do more than 200 miles in a day and staying two nights at each stop. Before we could start our trip we had to make a side trip to Charlotte NC where my husband had a meeting over a business venture. So our trip began by breaking our own rules. Business is business after all. And so, with no small amount of sadness and a bit of relief we rolled down the highway and headed north.

 

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The Great Turtle Release

The weather had warmed and it was time for all the rescued turtles who came through the cold stunning without secondary issues to go back to the sea. As always, the turtle release became a grand show for the public, an opportunity to encourage love of turtles and do a little education. The release was advertised by various means and by the time we arrived with Jack Rudloe, the line into the park was long. We spent 35 minutes in line. We were ahead of the turtles and a good thing we were. I was also grateful we drove in the same vehicle as Jack because by the time we got there, there was no parking left but space reserved for Gulf Specimen Marine Lab staff and guests. It was a huge relief when the vehicles from GSML and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission finally got in, escorted by park staff down the wrong side of the highway. Other staff and volunteers had arrived ahead of us and set up. There was also a huge and impatient crowd. Traffic meant the turtles had arrived almost an hour late.

 

Dick and I were among those honoured with releasing a turtle. Somewhere in the mix was our own rescue turtle #36. The honourees were gloved and lined up and and each of us were given instructions to carry the turtle to the water and watch and make sure the turtle actually swam away. It was so exciting! The vehicle were emptied and then turtle after turtle was delivered to the FWC staff to be carefully ticked off the roster and then handed off to the honourees. There was no time to find #36. We got the turtle we got. I didn’t care. I know #36 was in there somewhere.

Two turtles went ahead of us. Dick got his turtle first and then I got mine. Dick went first. His turtle swam off sideways into the crowd before heading out to sea. I had to wait while the other turtles left the beach as each turtle had to go one at a time. During the wait I posed the turtle for his admirers in the crowd.

My turtle didn’t want anything to do with being a celebrity and as soon as he hit the water, he was gone like a shot. I was so happy! How exciting to be blessed with a chance to release a wild thing back to the wild.

Many more turtles followed. Some were big turtles. One special great big turtle had been a “guest” at GSML at the last cold stunning. FWC found her tag when they checked everyone for new tags. That really gave the staff a big high and measuring and weighing her meant all kinds of new data on turtle growth.

 

Smiles all around and everyone who was on the permit got to release at least one turtle.

And then it was over and the crowd dispersed and a few of us hung back. The volunteers took down everything and then folks paused for a few more pictures and a few more interviews with the press were in order. And finally we left and went to celebrate with dinner at a local bar. It was a very fine day for turtles. GSML released a video linked below. Dick can be seen in the video. I am there too but only in a drone shot. Just as the last turtle left the non waterproof drone dunked in the water and was fried. GSML was talking about a new drone that was water proof but they still had this one and so it wasn’t really time to spend the money…..  Poor drone sat smoking on a picnic table as the crowds departed. Maybe it is time to buy that waterproof one that can take of and land on the sea.

This will be one of my favourite memories of all time!

Turtle Rescue

We do get involved in some crazy things, no doubt about it. There was a mass turtle stranding in our area of the panhandle in Florida where we were staying. The last time this happened was in 2010. All the sea turtle people around Florida were out seeking cold stunned turtles due to the bizarre cold weather from the polar vortex. The turtles get too cold and then end up unable to move, floating on the surface. Many drown when they can no longer move enough to even lift their heads up to take a breath. Some end up washed up like debris on the shore where certain death awaits. If the cold doesn’t kill them, predators or dehydration will. Any turtle that could be found would be brought in and warmed and saved to be released when the cold spell passed.

A call went out for folks who could walk the beaches to look for stranded turtles. We were among those who answered the call. Here we are, with other volunteers and staff from Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, getting our marching orders from Cypress Rudloe and “how to help a cold stunned turtle” safety information.IMG_0965

We then drove off to Appalachacola with our crew to meet Captain Ron and his Mrs, Cynthia, of Dream On Charters at the boat dock there. I really appreciated my long johns and Canadian style layering as we raced across the gulf to a small island called Cape St George Island Wildlife Preserve. Hubby dearest and I were assigned the northern side of the island an area with some white sand beaches and lots of muddy tide flats. We were given a folding wagon to transport any turtles we found.

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The day was cool to start but we were warmed by the sun. We had been told to especially check the grass and debris at the high tide line. Our trip was set to coincide with the low tide. We were also told to watch the surf but there isn’t a lot of surf on the inside (mainland side) of the island where the water is shallow and filled with the kind of grass beds green sea turtles love to graze in.

The island is a preserve so there was no one else beyond our team on it and we saw no signs of human life. The island is hardly deserted though as we found bear scat and coyote tracks. We didn’t see any of those.

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We arrived far too late for this poor little turtle. But them a miracle happened! We saw a flipper moving weakly in the air above a clump of seaweed.

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We found one poor turtle barely able to move from the cold. We carefully moved the turtle into the transport wagon and continued looking for more survivors.

In total we walked 10 kilometres (or six miles). We only found one living turtle but we were so happy to be able to save even one. As we walked, we kept the turtle in the sunshine as much as possible to help warm him. The more we walked the warmer he got and he began moving around. If only it had been warmer we could have let him go right then and there instead of lugging him around but the water was only 45F and he needed to be brought in for a vet check and full warming at GSML. Finally, when we had gone 5 kilometres in one direction we hit an inlet where the water was too deep to continue on. We contacted our team’s fearless leader and discovered the boat could not come in close so we would have to return to our starting point for pick up. I tried not to have a good cry and only just succeeded. Then we started back. By now the tide was coming in and the flats were getting wetter and the ground softer. We went as fast as we could to get off the rapidly vanishing tide flats and back to more solid beaches. We had a rest for a bit once we were back on the stable beach and then we continued our slog. Whenever I wanted to stop I looked at the little turtle and carried on.

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Finally, taking turns with the wagon and encouraging each other and breaking for water and snacks, we got back to our starting point. We had company as we waited for the boat.

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The heron is kind of a family symbol often appearing at significant and important events in my husband’s life. We only half jokingly refer to the Great Blue as his totem so we took the presence of one at the landing area to be a sign of karmic approval. Now that we were safe and secure and just had to wait for the boat, we felt a lot better. It also helped that we didn’t have to walk anymore. After about a 30 minute wait our ride back to the mainland came. I passed our turtle guest up to Captain Ron and we all felt great pride that we had succeeded. By the time the boat arrived the little turtle had warmed enough to flap and struggle. That made us all feel better. The turtle then went into an insulated box and since the sun was rapidly setting, he got covered with an insulated blanket.

Rescued Green Transfered to the boat.

As if to confirm karmic blessings we were escorted all the way back to the mainland by several dolphins who put on a fine show for us, playing in our wake and giving us dolphin laughs. I enjoyed the show a lot. Dolphins

When we arrived at the dock we were delighted to pass custody of the sea turtle to one of our team members, Brian, and let him take the turtle back to the lab. Hubby Dearest and I went for pizza on St George Island before heading home. We were REALLY hungry and REALLY sore and REALLY tired. Neither one of us have walked 10 kilometres in a long time. But we were so happy and we felt so good. It had been a grand adventure and so worth it!

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The next morning I got to the lab to check on “our” green sea turtle and I arrived at the lab just in time to see the turtle go into the tank and swim about, fully recovered. The turtle was designated #36 (of 48 rescues). He or she (you can’t tell at this age) got a clean bill of health from the vet yesterday. As soon as it has warmed up enough to be safe for the little turtle to go back to the sea, it will be released.

And we saved him!

 

Florida Panhandle and Georgians.

We rolled into Florida at last. We had two stops. I have always loved St George’s State Park on the lovely island with its endless white sand beaches and little tourist costal town. Unfortunately, so it would appear does everyone else and the place is impossible to get into without a reservation. We decided to try some of the other coastal state parks instead.

We first stopped at Big Lagoon State Park. The park turned out to be both a pleasant surprise and a disappointment. It was a big disappointment because it is literally in a big lagoon behind a barrier peninsula and so there was no surf to see. The only beaches were small narrow brownish sand ones on brackish brown water side with signs warning about gators. Maybe I am a coward but I simply don’t like swimming where there are fellow swimmers that might eat me given a chance. However, we ended up really enjoying our stay because the park has a two mile trail along a dune that ends up in a lookout tower. We walked the trail with dogs and it was really pleasant and we had a lovely time. The other pleasant surprise was the constant display of fancy military aircraft. More than once we saw dazzling flyover formation of up to four military airplanes at a time so close they were almost touched. I love seeing airplanes which always seemed to me to be the pinnacle of human engineering achievement. In the end, in spite of the lack of surf, Big Lagoon was great fun and well worth the stop.

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We left Big Lagoon and continued east along the coast. After a quick stop in a laundry mat, we rolled along the coast enjoying route 98 until we reached T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. The highlight of that was seeing wild dolphins sporting in the ocean. I do love seeing wild dolphins.

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When we first arrived there were many sites for a single night but since the second night included a Friday and weekends are busy, there was only one site available for two nights. The campsites were all very close together and every spot near us had Georgians in it. A great gang of them had apparently all fled the recent snowfall. The site was a rather awkward tight back in. We had to ask a fellow to move his truck and I had to drive around again to get the rig lined up just right. He was very nice about our request and moved his Georgia state licensed truck for us with good cheer. Once I was in the right spot with enough room to maneuver, it was easy. I carefully and slowly back into the perfect position in one roll and then to my utter astonishment, I got out of the truck to a hefty round of applause from the folks all around us.  Apparently they found a female driver competently backing in to be astonishing. Several of them made comments like “Well done!” and “He let’s his wife back in?” and “I’ve never seen a woman do such a fine job backing up.”

I did a little bow for the audience and smiled broadly and shrugged and said “Farm girl married to a city boy.” And of course, as usual, that made perfect sense to them even though the real story is far more complicated. We chatted briefly with our friendly neighbours. My husband immediately lapses back into his midwest American English as soon as he hears it again but they commented on my Canadian accent with delight. I deliberately used the world “about” a lot since that is when it is most obvious. We had to give the usual explanation of where “Friendly Manitoba” is, (north of North Dakota) and how cold it is this time of year (-40 is where the Fahrenheit and Celsius systems cross.)

We continued to unpack and settled into our trailer while having a private laugh together about silly sexism and how generally delightful, charming and open hubby dearest’s fellow citizens are, especially those from Georgia. There really is no reason at all a woman can’t learn to back in a trailer properly and now they know Canadian farm girls can do it. It’s not a task that requires that brand of “superior male intellect” meaning brute male strength, as one of my female friends (a physicist by training) likes to say. Interesting how southern women have apparently arranged things so they never have to back in a trailer, bless their hearts.

At last! Ocean and rolling surf. I have been on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts but the Gulf of Mexico is really my favourite. The waves are pretty and roll about waist high. On the Pacific the waves are so huge I quite feel intimidated and on the Atlantic, it is unpredictable, small one day and rolling monsters the next. The Gulf of Mexico waves are almost always just the right size for my taste. The beach was endless stretches of lovely white sand, far longer than anything I could walk in a day. The park is set at the end of a long long peninsula so that the shoreline is natural dunes and plants. The only down side was no dogs are allowed on the beach so our faithful companions had to wait back at the trailer. Even so, we took a long long walk along the beach soaking up the feeling of sand and surf. A cold wind finally drove us back.

We went out to the beach at night once too. It was blacker than black and being cloudy there was nothing above either. The wind was ferocious and cutting cold and we had not thought to wear our Canadian winter gear so we didn’t last long. It was quite the experience, feeling utterly alone in the black. Eventually, refreshed and ready after four nights experiencing the coast, we left early morning, waving a cherry goodbye to the lovely Georgians, to arrive at our final destination in Florida, the charming little coastal town of Panacea where our friends were waiting to welcome us.

Tate’s Hell State Forest

One of the things I meant to post about was our visit to Tate’s Hell State Forest. It’s a weird place that was once a dense swamp that got remade into a tree plantation. It lies between the Apalachicola and Ochlockonee rivers in the Florida panhandle. It got its name because a fellow named Cebe Tate got lost in the swamp for days in 1875 and when he finally found his way out he announced “”My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell.” That’s the legend of how the swamp got its name.

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The original swamp from hell was drained, flattened, and many roads and deep drainage ditches between by flat planted forest blocks result in a grid like set up which reminded me of the prairie more than anything else. Beyond the grid pattern there is little resemblance to the prairie. The combination of deep ditches and forest and open roads has changed the nature of the place from an inaccesible forbidding swamp like Okefenoke Swamp to a place you can drive right in and yet see all kinds of wildlife up close. There is only primitive camping in designated areas of the forest so it isn’t a place for big rigs even though the main roads are wide enough. There are many trails in addition to the roads and it is a favoured hunting ground for the locals. Some of the roads have been allowed to deteriorate until they are nothing but trails and some roads were very well maintained and even a little sports car can manage them. The forest is huge. We explored only one small bit right off the highway. I am told it includes great places to fish, oyster and canoe in addition to hunting. We went in for a short visit late in the day after a long walk at St George Island and a pizza dinner.

On our visit we saw deer, more birds than I can name, opossum, and a small snake. The place reputedly is full of alligators which would not surprise me one bit.  Those big wide deep ditches would be great gator habitat and all the associated mammals and birds would make for good eating. Our hosts, Jane Elzie Brand and Jack Rudloe gently suggested maybe Dick’s interest in closely examining the lily pads by leaning over the edges on his knees was better done just a little further back from the black water. I would not recommend taking a dog off leash either lest a beloved pet end up like Jack’s poor Megan did. These deep ditches are just a bit too good for gator sneak attacks. (We did not see any gators. It was cool and they don’t normally do much in cool weather.)

One of the more interesting features of the park is “miniature” or “hat rack” cypress. You can get right up close to one such stand at the Ralph G. Kendrick Boardwalk. It is an easy drive in and there is good parking. (I would not recommend doing it with a big rig as the ditches full of water are on both sides and it would be a bit tight to turn around. You could leave the big rig on the road before the turn and walk in.)

The cypress trees are literally dwarf or miniature and you can see them up close. Being winter, the cypress were silvery with no green except the Spanish moss green and the rest was kind of brown and drab. I half expected to see Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor. Still we had a very nice time. There is information on these little trees posted on the dock and they are not a distinct species as I first thought. Underlying impermeable clay means the swamp is shallow and nutrient poor. The trees are stunted rather than dwarf.

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We spent about an hour at the boardwalk. There was a lot to see but the sun was setting and the no-see-ums got pesky in spite of how cool it was. It was a nice way to end a very nice day and I can heartily recommend taking a detour through this fascinating forest if you are in the area.IMG_0241

Riding the Tide into a Salt Marsh

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We did something I have wanted to do for a long time. We rode the incoming tide from Levy Bay to the big pool at the intersection of Chattahoochee St in Panacea and Highway 98. There is a channel that winds through marsh grass swamps, sinkholes with springs, and some forested areas. The land is privately owned so you can’t leave the water but you do get to see some forest along the trip. We started at the Levy Bay landing which is a public boat dock. The marsh turns into impassable mud flats at low tide so we arrived one and half hours before high tide. By the time we had the canoe down and everything set up, we had one hour until high tide.

The tide rushes into these narrow channels at a brisk pace. You have to pay careful attention to avoid getting stuck on sandbars or hitting oyster bars. There are also lots of obstacles like fallen trees, remnants of old docks, and debris. Additionally the channel itself has many deep pools over springs where you simply can’t see the bottom in the brownish water. So we rode the tide in. In places it was like mini rapids. Always a strong flowing current, fast moving, to ride. The water is topped with foam, full of all kinds of bits of debris and detritus and full of crab holes along along the muddy banks of the marsh grass. We saw mullet, smaller fish, a string ray in black about 18 inches across the wing tips and many birds, especially egrets, cranes and vultures.

We did not bring our camera. We have used the rice trick (putting the camera in a bag of rice to dry out) once already after a canoe trip. While the camera recovered, the calendar never worked again. My pictures always download marked as having occurred on 2013 date the camera got dunked. It was a good thing we didn’t try to take pictures. Riding the tide in those narrow channels at quite a good clip while avoiding all the potential places to spill was challenging enough. If you look at the satellite picture you can see near the end of the route one very large and very deep pool. It was a real pleasure to come charging in there at top speed and find ourselves in this huge relatively calm place. The volume of water there is so deep even the incoming tide makes only a small impression. Though the water was clear we could not see the bottom making me wonder if maybe there is a smaller version of the Wakulla springs in the deepest place.

We rested a bit and then took the final small channel to the egret pond next to the highway. That was our goal. We see that pool every time we drive to the beach and I really wanted to find out why it always has at least three white egrets in it. We arrived at top speed out of the channel to find ourselves on a flat mud basin. The egrets were intently feeding and barely looked up, as if canoes with humans arrive here all the time. They had certainly had no need to worry since we were firmly grounded on smelly mud.

We unstuck ourselves with much heave ho-ing and worked our way back up the channel to the deep pool. The tide was already ebbing. By the time we crossed the deep pool the rush of water had ended so we leisurely wended our way across the pool and then back up the channel. As we arrived in sight of our truck the tide began to turn and run back out. We rode the reversed current the last few hundred yards.

Being a prairie girl and not accustomed to the ocean, the tide fascinates me. The marsh breathes the water in and then breathes it out. The grass and creatures that live on the shore line have adapted to thrive in the rhythmic rise and fall. The marsh’s rich detritus is carried out of the marsh with the tide and feeds the wildlife at the bottom of the food chain. Farther and farther up the food chain, larger and larger creatures wait at the mouths of the channel and then at the mouths of the bay ready to eat. The marsh is the food source of many creatures in the bay.

The marsh also serves as a nursery for much of the sea life. Many fish swim into the bays and lay eggs and then swim out. The fry hatch and grow in the shelter of the marsh, feeding on insects and the like until they are finally big enough to ride the tide out. The endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles feast on blue crab in the bay for two years or so before continuing their slow migration back around the gulf to their breeding places. The mud flats, like the final place where we saw all those egrets, is its own feasting place for these and many other glorious birds..

One of the unfortunate things that has happened in Florida is that many of these nurseries and feeding places have been filled, levelled and now have shopping malls and hotels and houses. Wakulla has been blessed with acres and acres and acres of coastal wetlands that protect and nourish the Gulf. There is a tale of this area that says a very rich woman once asked naturalist and writer Jack Rudloe how to best help sea horses. He told her protect the marshes on the coast because the marshes feed the reefs just off shore where the sea horses live. And so she bought six miles of coastland marsh and she does nothing with it except protect it in order to protect the sea horses.

The world needs more such wise women.

We get through our second major tornado outbreak.

I am a weather fanatic. I freely admit. I have been as long as I can remember. Tornado and severe thunderstorms are kind of my ultimate weather fear and thrill. So last night was one fantastic terrifying experience.

Early in the day NOAA released one of their charts with a big red bull’s eye and our winter parking spot was on the boundary of the red zone. The last time we saw one of those was back on May 2011 when we spent 6 hours in a tornado shelter in Lexington Kentucky. That was the same day Joplin got flattened. We were on alert. We went out for dinner and our waitress told us that school was being cancelled the next day due to the forecast. That was pretty shocking. Schools closed due to a possible tornado event? The locals were worried and one absolute rule we have with severe weather is if the locals worry then you should worry too. As we were getting ready to retire for the night we checked the NOAA site and found that Pensacola was under a tornado warning. There was also a report about a tornado having hit an RV park. It is a horrible eery awful sensation to look at the red on the map and know people may be dying at that moment.

We decided we would prepare for the worst. We checked out the nearby study building with a washroom, concrete walls and  reinforced roof designed to withstand hurricanes we had previously chosen as our safest place. We covered windows that might be problematic with cushions and got the shower stall ready complete with mattresses and quilts to put over our heads. I really really really missed my nice sturdy basement shelter back home.

We couldn’t sleep so we both decided to stay up and work while watching the radar. Time and again we saw severe storm warnings with red tornado warnings popping up. The weather people always sound alarmed but this was alarmed and grave, meaning bad. At about 4:00am I saw a large storm heading our way from the ocean. I told hubby dearest we would have to move to our sheltering spot soon. He began preps for trouble. About five minutes later the severe thunderstorm warning went up and we headed to the bathroom. Normally a severe thunderstorm warning by itself is not enough to send us to shelter but there had been many examples of these severe cells sending down tornados with almost no warning I could see on the radar and it just seemed better to not take a chance.

The storm cell took about fifteen minute to pass over and two more came right behind it. Each one brought lots of lightning and pouring rain but thunder was distant and muffled. We had one spell of horizontal rain that lasted about two minutes but no other danger signs. We never actually moved into the bathroom although we were right beside it. As the storm cells moved on shore there was an obvious weakening and  the radar showed no rotation and we felt it was fine to simply be near safety.

By about 5:00am it was pretty much over. The storm system had passed us by with no damage. The ground was wet when we went back to our trailer and finally went to sleep. I mumbled about how we had really wasted our time worrying about the tornado and staying up. Hubby dearest strongly disagreed. This time nothing came our way. If we get careless or complacent next time might not be so lucky.

Today we learned a long track EF3 hit Pensacola destroying almost 100 homes. Another tornado destroyed an RV campground in the town of Convent, in southern Louisiana and killed two people and injured 31 people. It was a strong graphic reminder of how RVs are not a good place to be in tornado weather.Tonight I am heading to bed grateful for a tornado free night to catch up on my sleep.

I hope the folks hit by this tornado outbreak all make a full recovery of home and health. My condolences to the family who lost loved ones. That could have been us.

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Associated Press picture of the Convent RV Park in Louisiana after it was hit by a tornado.