Hurricane hiatus

We have been busy.  I have not posted my usual travel blog for a couple weeks.  Readers from other countries are probably aware Hurricane Irma made landfall at Marco Island, Florida and passed through the state.  But even U.S. readers may not realize some of our South Florida residents suffered significant flooding from a tropical system the last week of August.  As a result, we are now finishing our third week working with the Red Cross.

We are safe and well, and our home had no damage.

During Irma, we stayed with about thirty people in our local Red Cross headquarters group which moved 30 miles inland to the field house of Ave Maria University. There was one safe place where I could look out recessed hallway doors facing north while the wind blew from the east. Based on previous experience, I would say winds reached about one hundred and thirty miles-an-hour. The university’s bleachers for football fans were reduced to a pile of metal rubble, but the building itself suffered little damage.

The only photos I have are of the recovery effort after the August storm.  As I write this, these same homes are flooded by even higher water.

Next week I will be back with some interesting photos of Lake Placid’s murals.

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The Red Cross in New Orleans

House washed across a road up onto a dike.

On Tuesday, New Orleans commemorated the 12th anniversary of the August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina landfall.  Ironically, Harvey was waiting in the wings. What happened with Katrina provides lessons for those dealing with Harvey.

Many do not realize the Red Cross is funded primarily through donations. Damage from Katrina plus that from subsequent Hurricane Rita was so extensive, it became the greatest challenge in the history of the American Red Cross.  There is no charge for Red Cross shelters or for the food and supplies it distributes.  The organization incurred huge debt which forced it to consolidate operations and reduce staff and shaped the way it still works today.

Three months after Katrina made landfall.

My personal opinion is the people of New Orleans were betrayed by their corrupt local politicians and state officials.  Then in their grief, they lashed out at the federal government and sometimes even at the Red Cross for not providing relief that properly should have been planned in advance at the local and state level.

There were 1464 officially recognized deaths in New Orleans.   Hundreds of thousands were displaced.  Those who returned often found their homes destroyed or intact but with no water, electricity or gas.  Others found roofs damaged, water-soaked moldy walls, damaged furniture and appliances.  In mid-December 2005, the Red Cross was still providing over thirty thousand meals a day to the people of Louisiana.

Algiers kitchen at a Baptist church.

There is often a huge out-pouring of support right after a disaster.  But that support tends to wane as weeks and months pass by.  Knowing that, and because we do not have children, I chose to go to New Orleans just before Christmas. I drove an emergency response vehicle, ERV, with two other volunteers delivering food for three weeks.  It was very rewarding.  It was an eye-opening experience.

The news media immediately focuses on the extent of the disaster and the suffering.  Interspersed are stories of heroes and sacrifice.  Then as time goes by and public interest flags, they being to look for what is going wrong.  They interview what a nurse in New Orleans called BMWs, bitchers, moaners and whiners.

My first impression on arriving was I wasn’t as needed as I thought.  There was no shortage of volunteers; college students were out in force during their holiday break.

Secondly, I did not meet the BMWs on the street.  The people I met were happy to be alive, had put their grief behind them, were working hard to repair their homes and were grateful for the support they were receiving.

Baptist mobile disaster kitchen

Most food stores were still not open.  Volunteers from Baptist churches slept on a church sanctuary floor, got up at two o’clock in the morning, and prepared food in large mobile kitchens owned by the Southern Baptist Convention to be loaded on our ERVs for a seven a.m. departure.

On Christmas day, we had a few toys and cards to give out donated by children from around the country.  Some volunteers bought more on their own.  Until told it was prohibited, volunteers also bought dog food to take on their ERVs for stray dogs.

Ray, Amy, and Roger – the “senior” ERV crew

Perhaps because we were so close to the operation, we were surprised when some people thought we were paid to be there.  The Red Cross operates almost totally on donated money with a few federal grants, and ninety-eight percent of its staff are volunteers.  Phil, the site supervisor, was a bartender from Maryland.  He arrived the day before Katrina hit.   Terry, the kitchen supervisor, was an insurance broker from New Jersey.  Uba, a second generation Croatian, was a twenty-one year old student from Wisconsin.  Margaret was a retired South Carolina school teacher.  Rufus was a mortician from North Carolina.  Young man E’an, a second generation American from Scotland, was from Oregon. Probably Jessie traveled the furthest.  He was a student at the University of Hawaii, but his home was in Bogota, Columbia.  Tito, a Puerto Rican, was a retired transit worker from the Bronx.  Usa, whose mother was from Thailand, was a biology student at Cornell.  David was a California lifeguard.  Mike was a fishing guide from Montana.  Matthew was a Tuscarora Indian from New York.   Roberta was our oldest volunteer at seventy-eight.

Fixed feeding station at a Vietnamese church.

We drove up and down the streets delivering food every day except Sundays when we also were in a church parking lot in the afternoon.   By odd coincidence, I spent two Christmases away from my wife, one thirty-five years earlier in Viet Nam and that one in the parking lot of a New Orleans Vietnamese church.

We met people who lost family members in the storm.  We met people who seemed to have lost everything.  They continued to smile.  Unless distracted, they always said “thank you” and frequently “God bless you for being here.”  Even elderly Vietnamese who spoke almost no English and held up fingers to indicate the number of meals needed said “thank you very much.”  One group of men asked if they could pray.  Of course, we said yes.  We thought they wanted to give thanks for their food, but they wanted to pray for our well-being.

Although it is strictly forbidden by Red Cross rules, how could we reject three small gifts wrapped in red tissue given to us by an African-American woman on Christmas day.  She gave Roger a calendar, Amy a pen and me an eyeglass repair kit I still own.

During our time on the ERV, Roger and I served (with Bill and later Amy) 8505 meals.  At that point, the American Red Cross had a 30.35 million dollar loss to make up.  It got bigger.

Before Harvey made landfall in Texas, Red Cross volunteers were already gathering in Texas and Louisiana.  Harvey did not cause as many deaths as Katrina but damage is more wide-spread and recovery will also take months.  Complete recovery takes years.

I can no longer deploy out of our area.  Southwest Florida, however, has its own flooding [but much smaller].  Our local Red Cross opened shelters, and I spent yesterday again driving up and down streets, but this time helping with “disaster assessment” to assist in later relief decisions.  As I said, it is a rewarding and eye-opening experience.

Please remember your support will be needed not just now but for months to come.  You might even want to consider going to  They are swamped right now but will continue to need help later.

Click on photos to enlarge.

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San Juan Cathedral

Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Baptist is the English translation.   It shows up on maps as San Juan Cathedral and is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere [the oldest is in the Dominican Republic].  Built in 1540 after the 1521 wood structure was destroyed in a hurricane, it  has been remodeled many times.  The latest major renovation was completed in 1917 and demonstrates both neo-classical and Gothic architecture.

The British Earl of Cumberland sacked and looted the church during his attack on San Juan in 1598.  He was just one of many robbers to plague the church over the centuries. Nonetheless, some early stained glass windows and statues remain.

Ponce de León, the first Governor of Puerto Rico, was fatally wounded in Florida while chasing after the Fountain of Youth.  He didn’t spend much time in San Juan, but his family lived up the street at the Casa Blanca and attended church at the Church of San José which was under reconstruction during my visit.

They buried Ponce in the family church, but 350 years later it was decided to give him a more prominent tomb in the Cathedral, and he was moved in 1908.

Even older remains are found on the other side of the church, those of St. Pio.  In the 19th Century, the Bishop asked the Pope for a relic.  The Pope gave him St. Pio, a Roman soldier martyred when he became a Christian.  In 1815, the Bishop took him to Spain to have the remains “restored” but forgot them when he returned to San Juan.  A later Bishop was reminded while in Spain and arranged to have them shipped to the Cathedral in 1862.  Some refer to the relics as a “mummy” but it appears it may just be the skull [still with its teeth] encased in a wax figure.

Less dramatic are the vestments worn by Pope John Paul II when he celebrated mass in San Juan October 12th, 1984  and given to the Cathedral by Pope Francis in 2015.

“Even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.”  I thought that when I read the words of a man I dislike: “you can’t change history; you can only learn from it.”  I don’t believe you will find the San Juan Cathedral particularly beautiful.  But it reflects over 450 years’ of history.

Click on photos to enlarge.

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Wandering in San Juan

El Morro, built between 1539 and 1790, guards the entrance to San Juan.

It is a luxury to just wander without a destination, without a plan.  Few people care to do it.  But I wandered for about four hours in San Juan before stopping at a tourist office to get a map.  It’s in my genes; it’s in my genes to aimlessly wander; and it’s in my genes to wonder where I’ve been even if I don’t care where I’m going.

After walking outside the city wall, I cut up through a gate into El Morro’s outer courtyard and continued past the old cemetery.


Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in use since 1814

Then, for a long time I just walked up and down streets looking at the churches, the houses, the restaurants, the people.

I went into the Cathedral, the subject of another post.

I found myself at the top of the wall just above where I started the day.  A young photographer was there with her assistant and model.  I asked if she was shooting for an assignment — no, just to make photographs.

Click on photos to enlarge.

The streets of old San Juan:

Looking into an occasional courtyard:

Pigeon Park:

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Walking beneath the walls of old San Juan

Former telegraph office, then tourist office and now rum outlet on the Bay of San Juan.

Arriving early in San Juan, Puerto Rico with no plan in mind, I  went to get a map from tourism office but it wasn’t open.  So I walked across the street where the old wall that once surrounded Old San Juan was visible.  The three-mile long wall, begun in 1630 and completed in 1790, completely encircled the city at that time.

An old telegraph office, La Casita, sits at the entrance of a lovely walkway and garden, the Paseo de La Princesa.  Here, outside the wall, once were docks and warehouses bringing troops and supplies for the thriving city.

Paseo de La Princesa

At first I thought the Garden of the Princess, constructed on the walkway in 2014, was in honor of a princess.  But as I reached the end of the garden, I found “La Princesa,” a temporary penitentiary built in 1837.  The building, which housed as many as 240 people, was used as the local jail until 1960.  It in turn, took its name from the walkway.  I never did learn who the princess was.

Across the water is the small fort San Juan de La Cruz.  Its cannon, with those in El Morro, the towering fort at the entrance to the bay, would place enemy ships in a cross fire.

Puerto Rico is the “rich port.”  At the end of the trade winds, it was the place to stop to resupply before going to the Americas.  It was the place to stop before taking the riches of the Americas back to Europe.   San Juan was named after St. John the Baptist.  From the 1500s through the 1800s, dignitaries, merchants and common people entered the old city through the San Juan Gate.  Cargo entered the city through another gate closer to La Princesa.

After passing the San Juan Gate, I walked along the Paseo Del Morro National Trail, constructed and maintained by the National Park Service.  The trail, now three-quarters of a mile long, is part of a planned set of trails which will eventually stretch to Capitol Plaza about a mile to the east of the current terminus.

Looking out at the water, my first instinct is to view it as an artist, to look at the patterns, the shapes, the color and to try to frame it in my eye.  But the signs along the way call to my imagination.  Imagine builders sweating in the heat for one hundred and sixty years to place those stones in the wall.  Imagine countless people of all types passing through that gate, most without thought to the gate but only to where they had been and where they were going.

Isla de Cabras [Island of Goats] holds fort San Juan de la Cruz and once was a leper colony.

Look at the water, the channel into to the natural harbor.  First Americans undoubtedly plied their canoes here.  Columbus sailed in the area, claimed the island for Spain and may have even anchored here.  Ponce de León , seeker of the Fountain of Youth,  who was wounded in battle in Florida not far from where I write this, was the first governor of Puerto Rico.  English explorer and privateer Francis Drake attacked the city here but was driven away by El Morro’s cannon.

Now cruise ships arrive full of people with thoughts of palm trees, rum and dancing.

Click on photos to enlarge.

The path beneath the wall

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Harmony of the Seas: That’s entertainment.

Sports Pool

This is the last in a three-part series on Harmony of the Seas. We sailed on it despite the fact we had been to the ports it was visiting.  Our thought was we would just enjoy being on the ship.  We didn’t imagine just how enjoyable it would be.  It is a floating resort.

For the health conscious, there is a fitness center, spa, jogging track and four swimming pools.  Two FlowRider® pools simulate surf allowing one to surf standing or on a Boogie board.  A skating rink is open for passengers to skate on  as well as being a venue for shows.

Entrance to the Abyss

Just for fun, I went down the ten-story Abyss sliding board and the Perfect Storm water slides.  I chose not to do the Zip-line because I thought it too short.

Believing in early to bed and early to rise and averse to loud music, I did not attend ‘RED: The Nightclub Experience,” “Harmony High 50’s & 60’s Dance Party” or “HUSH! Silent Disco” — at the latter, they dance to music from headphones.

Days at sea featured parades with costumed figures and acrobatic dancing: “Caribbean Street Party;” “Boardwalk Fiesta;” and “Totally Awesome 90’s Street Party.”  There were also photo ops with cartoon movie characters scattered throughout the program.

One day, the Captain and his staff took questions at the AquaTheater, an area at the back of the ship with a floor for dry activities that also sinks to become a 17.9 foot-deep pool.

We attended two shows at that AquaTheater, “The Fine Line Aqua Show” and the “Hideaway Heist.”   One doesn’t go to these productions for the drama but for spectacular acrobatics and diving.

Like its sister ships Oasis and Allure, Harmony offers Broadway shows. On our cruise, it was Grease.


They also had their own production show, Columbus the Musical about Columbus’ lesser known brother Marvin.  Our imaginations were caught by his boat on a rotating section of the stage.  It was almost the size of the original Niña.  It takes a really big ship to have that on stage.

We also enjoyed going to the theater to see “The Edge Effect” an a cappella group, five guys from Orlando who do amazing things with their voices including a complete bass and rhythm backup to their songs.

1887: A Journey in Time – Ice Spectacular

We did not attend the art auction because I feel the “art” is mostly not worth the time, and those pieces that are have reserve prices above what one might pay elsewhere.

Nor did we attend the comedy club or jazz club or many other offerings.  It wasn’t that we didn’t want to see them; there just wasn’t time.

One day while having lunch at Johnny Rockets, we were amused when the waiters all broke into a dance.


“To each, his own” is an old phrase [witness it is not gender neutral].  But it is true; you might like things we rejected and vice versa.

Our personal favorites were the ice shows.  The rink is small, perhaps a third of a regulation hockey rink, but a skater was still able to get up enough speed to do a triple Axel.  1887: A Journey in Time Ice Spectacular had wonderful costumes and amazing lighting special effects.  At one point, the ice appears to break up and become part of a flowing river.  At another, one seems to be looking down into a lock with water rushing in to fill it before turning again into ice.


I suspect the costumes prevented the skaters from performing many jumps in that show, but another show, “ISkate Ice Show,” featured more traditional figure skating.  An interesting sidelight was one performer did all his elaborate skating on hockey skates.  To each, his own.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Next week my post will finally get off the ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Commentary: Travel, Life and Death

A European once commented “Americans seem to think death is optional.”

I had lunch with my friend George, a licensed architect who worked on plans for a medical facility earlier this year.  His doctor told him a couple months ago cancer had spread throughout his bones and he had only a few months to live.  George doesn’t believe him and plans to get a second opinion.

George was a quartermaster on a World War II LST at the Salerno and Anzio landings in Italy and a helmsman on D-Day.  He celebrated his 93rd birthday this week.  I’m betting on George.

Some people die a bit each day of their lives.  Others live to the best of their ability every day until they die.

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