Weeks After Hurricane Harvey – The Recovery in Texas Begins Now

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The photos included in this entry were taken a day ago in a neighborhood a couple of miles away from my own home.  Almost every photo is of a different street that was flooded.  There are countless other subdivisions that I can drive through at this very moment that will look the same or worse.

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The water has receded, but the real work is just beginning.  The hurricane impacts are no longer splashed across the national and global news stories, so many people seem to think that life has returned to normal in southeastern Texas.

24I have been surprised at the number of questions I have received repeatedly over the past week, so I have come to the realization that many people must have the same questions as well.  Hopefully these responses will give some insight regarding why the post-hurricane recovery is a tremendous challenge that truly needs ongoing support from the community.  This entry addresses some of the key questions I have heard.

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  • “Is everything finally going back to normal over there now?”

This question stings every time I receive it, and the answer is short and simple.  Not in the slightest.

28Speaking from a personal perspective, my housing situation hasn’t been impacted, and the only automotive hiccup beyond the increased traffic is that it’s still tricky to consistently find gasoline.  However, the moment you step into an area that was slammed by the floodwaters, it becomes shockingly clear how much life most definitely has not returned to normal.26

  • “The hurricane was weeks ago, and you haven’t received any rain.  Hasn’t all of the water already gone away by now?”

The bayous are still extremely high and will likely remain this way for some time to come.  The water continues to recede, but many people are just beginning the process of re-entering their destroyed homes for very brief periods of time.  Given that some areas had ongoing high standing water for a couple of weeks, the homes and cars display heavy black mold, and the smells of mildew and rot hang thick in the air.

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We have been told of the dangers of entering these homes without specialized masks and equipment, but people continue to return to their (potentially former) residences to salvage any small items they can recover.  The rest is left in mountains in the yards.  Building materials, appliances, furniture, clothing, toys.  Memories heaped into piles awaiting assessment by FEMA adjusters and cleanup by professionals with the equipment to do the job.

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  • “Why were so many people without homeowners insurance?”

 This issue has been broadly misunderstood by many who do not live near water or in a coastal area.  If you are a homeowner with a mortgage, you will almost certainly have homeowners insurance.  That insurance covers instances of theft, fire, and water damage for limited circumstances such as broken pipes or damage from water coming in via a hole in the roof.  Unfortunately homeowners insurance does NOT cover rising water.  There is a national flood insurance program specifically designed to cover rising water damage (examples include storm surge / extremely high tides from the ocean, rising water from overflowing rivers and bayous, and rainwater pooling in the streets that ultimately floods a home).  If you lived 50 miles from the ocean and several miles from a river, you wouldn’t normally be concerned about those bodies of water. If your neighborhood had not flooded ever and you had lived there for decades, it might seem excessive to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars each year for flood insurance.  Correction – it seemed excessive until the statistical impossibility came creeping up our driveways and pouring through the doors.

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  • “Many people knew that they were in high risk areas.  Why did they move there, and why didn’t they have flood insurance after they bought their homes?”

 The flood patterns have changed dramatically over the past couple of years, and we have experienced record-breaking water heights that have never been documented for our areas.  Flood insurance premiums went up drastically a couple of years ago.  If you happened to live in a home that was in a zone hit by these changes, the cost increase was exponential.  A flood policy that once reflected an annual cost of roughly $350 for full coverage jumped to $10,000 or more per year for 50% coverage. This is not an exaggeration.  I am using actual premiums currently paid by a family friend.  How does the average family just find another $10,000 of cash to spare, and how do you sell your home once you have been tagged as living in the danger zone?

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  • “But at least auto insurance will cover the loss of their cars, right?”

 People were trapped in their homes.  The storm pummeled the area without mercy, and we simply could not drive through the dangerous high water that rose at an alarming rate.  (A common saying you hear in areas that flood is, “Turn around.  Don’t drown.”  People drown in high water every time storms flood the area because drivers simply can’t detect the depth of the water until it’s too late.)

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The rain predictions went up with every forecast we heard, and the final tallies were beyond anything we could have prepared for in advance.  People moved their cars up their properties as much as they were able, but there was nowhere to go once the water was several feet deep.  If you have ever been in a severe auto accident that totaled your car, you know how far Blue Book value does NOT go.  Your car depreciates at lightning speed, but the balance owed on your automobile loan does not match that decrease.  Hundreds of thousands of vehicles were lost, and many of these car owners instantly became upside down on their loans.**

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This makes me so angry.  I’m not upset that they wrote the words, “Do not take anything.”  I’m upset that had to say it at all.

To add insult to serious injury, that means that these same people who lost their vehicles now are left without a trade in nor do they have any cash for a down payment.  I imagine that it would be tough work finding a decent used car here anyway given the massive vehicle shortage, but even if you could find one, would you buy it from this area?  Speaking personally, that would be a hard pass, but maybe that’s just me.  Most people can’t afford new cars, and they certainly can’t afford them when they are starting from zero.5

  • “Why didn’t everyone evacuate?”

You had to be here during Hurricane Rita to really understand this dynamic.  Hurricane Katrina had obliterated the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi one month prior.  As Hurricane Rita barreled our way, it sent all of Houston into a panic.  We were told to expect a fierce storm, and families raced to pile clothes into bags and kids into cars.  Vehicles swarmed the roads like ants in a fury.  At the time, my husband and I lived in a patio home by a couple dozen other families.  Only one of those other families stayed behind.  Every other family we knew got stuck on the road for hours, and when I say hours, I mean that the traffic was so unimaginably bad that many sat in their cars for 12-13 hours without ever actually making their way out of Houston.  Some found a way to turn around and head back home, while others were only able to return after the storm missed the city.  People had left expecting to drive a couple of hours and were not prepared to be camping in their vehicles on parking lots once known to be interstates.  One set of neighbors at the time had their grandmother in the car.  She died while they waited.  Yes.  She literally died in their car while sitting on a highway.  I can’t fathom this, nor can I forget it.

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Evacuation was never a consideration for us then, and it didn’t even make the discussion list for Hurricane Harvey.  The last place I would want my family to be trapped in during a 175 mph storm is a vehicle.  For most of the city, evacuation would not have helped.  More cars might have been salvaged, but the homes would be underwater nonetheless.  I’m truly sorry for the lives that were lost, but that same evacuation could have been catastrophic if traffic had trapped families in cars on the roads during tornadoes, hurricane force winds, and flash flooding.

  • “What does it look like today?”

It really depends on where you go.  If you step outside my home or the home of anyone else in my neighborhood, you wouldn’t ever know that anything happened.  If you drive a couple of miles to the east, you will find the homes I photographed yesterday.  If you drive a few miles in any other direction, you can find the same scene.  Large areas lay in ruins.  The word “home” leaves you with an ache in your heart.  You feel the sadness when you see the residents, and there are no right words.

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  • “Are people meeting with FEMA already?”

I have spoken with people at different places in the process.  An area resident I spoke with yesterday told me that FEMA gave her an appointment date 3 weeks down the road.  In the meantime, she was given a hotel voucher if needed.  One of her neighboring families had been fortunate enough to meet with someone from FEMA, and they had given them a payment.  The family received $9,000 to complete all of the repairs on their home.  That was the full payment, and it was $4,000 more than the check received by a resident in another neighborhood by one of my sisters.  Keep in mind that these amounts won’t even cover the cost of having your home gutted let alone sanitized so you can enter it safely.  After that teams must come in to repair and replace sheetrock, electrical, plumbing, flooring, etc.  Then come the appliances, furniture, clothes, toiletries, food, and everything else saturated by the toxic floodwaters.18

  • “It’s tough, but they can just walk away from their house and car loans.  They can start again.  If they don’t want to do that, they can get loans from FEMA for the full amounts they need.”

It’s not that simple.  Not at all.  FEMA loans do not cover car losses, so no change to that problem.  The loans would be for home repairs and possibly content replacement as well.***  We are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in new debt.  If they walk away from the homes, those properties will go into foreclosure.  If they walk away from the car loans, they will forfeit ownership of the vehicles.  In both scenarios, good honest people who have paid their bills diligently for years will be slammed with terrible credit scores.  Poor credit severely complicates buying other cars and homes, and foreclosure is visible on a credit report for 7 years.  It’s a vicious cycle, and there are no ideal answers.

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  • “How can I help?”

If you are not in an area that was affected or you are far away, please send gift cards (Home Depot, Lowes, Wal-Mart, Target, HEB, Kroger, etc.) to area locals that you know and trust.  Those people can hand these out to those residents.  Another option is to contact the churches around Houston, Fulshear, Katy, Bear Creek, Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Rockport (or any other areas you know who can are doing broad relief efforts directly with the surrounding communities).  The animal shelters also need aid as there are thousands of displaced animals now requiring care until their owners can be found or other homes become available.10

This is not about being a Christian.  I mention churches specifically because we have seen many organized groups of people coming from various churches.  They are working directly with those hurting right now, and their work is having a tremendous impact and reach.  The J.J. Watt Foundation has done incredible things for our community, and we will be forever grateful for the help they gave our communities.  Unfortunately this foundation has stopped accepting funds for hurricane relief and is requesting that further donations be given to alternate relief groups.  There are other widely recognized organizations, but many have noted their absence in areas in dire need of assistance.  Hopefully those groups will be in it for the long haul, but the initial response (or lack thereof) has been extremely concerning at best.9

Please research where you are sending your money if you truly want for it to go to actual assistance.  I would also ask that you please remember the small Texas towns like China, Meeker, Westbury, Sour Lake, Devers, Nome, and Refugio.  These towns are hurting, and they have not received the press coverage or assistance that Houston and Rockport have had.

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If you are in southeastern Texas and you are able to help, please keep volunteering your time, treasure and talent with as much generosity as you can muster.  Please share the names of all good contractors who are giving fair quotes for quality repair work.  We are already hearing about price gouging and egregious job bids by some unethical contractors.  I pray that most will operate with honesty and decency toward their fellow man in need, but many dishonest people will flock to communities that were hit hardest in an attempt to squeeze the homeowners in need.  We aren’t asking for free work.  We are asking for fair work.

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  • “How is everyone doing?”

It’s hard to see this all around us, but we are the lucky ones.  I believe that we were blessed, so we would be able to help those in need.  I drove my kids to the neighborhood pictured in this entry because I wanted them to have some shred of an idea as to what many of their friends are facing right now.  Even though our lives are becoming routine once more, we still hear about this everywhere we go.  Countless conversations include the question, “Did you guys flood?”  Often the answer is no, but frequently the answer is yes.  And it hurts every time I hear that response.

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Every person in the area knows people who are in the predicament I laid out above.  These people have worked their whole lives to give their families a sense of home and safety.  They need us now more than ever.  It is critical that we continue to support and help them – all of them.  This is just the beginning.  The reconstruction of these homes and these lives will be months and years in the making.  Again I ask that you please give support if you are able.  It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture.  Maybe you don’t buy a soda or a cup of coffee for one day, and those few dollars go to a gift card or a local relief group instead.  If you want to send gift cards but don’t know where to send them, please message me, and I can provide you with more specific options.  And if that isn’t your thing, prayers for healing and support are incredibly powerful and always appreciated.

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Thank you for your kindness.  Blessings to all of you.  Love and light always – Joanna

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**Being upside down on a loan means that your car is gone, but you still have a loan balance owed.  The insurance reimbursement you will receive will not be sufficient to fully cover the loan, but those payments are still owed by the (former) car owner.

***I am not knowledgeable in the specifics of the FEMA loan program, so feel free to share via comments if you have more info.  I will update this post if I can confirm those comments.

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Sting

It Does Matter

We are being pummeled by terrible news.  It’s heavy duty stuff.  Hurricanes and more hurricanes, earthquakes, massive fires, terrorism, and on and on and on.  I understand when I hear someone say that they feel helpless to do anything because there’s just too much to do.  It’s exhausting, and it’s overwhelming.

But do something good for someone else anyway.

There’s an amazing person who lives in my neighborhood.  Actually there are many of them, but this one is epic, and I seriously doubt that she even knows it.  She’s not trying to impress anyone.  She’s just doing her thing, and that happens to helping everyone she possibly can.  Before the last raindrop from the hurricane fell, she was in full gear organizing a local shelter for any flood victims in need.  The shelter has been closed for days, but she never stopped.  She just shifted to alternate relief efforts.  It’s just what she does.

We needed a break from the recent routine of incessant worry, so we took our kids to the beach yesterday.  While we were there, this beautiful story kept circling my mind.  It’s not a new tale, but I have always loved the message.  It makes me think of my amazing neighbor.  This is for you TG!

A child went to the beach with his family and saw countless starfish washed upon the beach.  As he played in the waves, he noticed a man walking along.  He would take a few steps and then toss a couple of starfish into the water.  A few more steps. A few more starfish. Over and over again. The child approached the man and said, “Why are you doing that?  You can’t save them all.  It doesn’t matter.”

The man smiled, reached down to pick up a starfish, and tossed it gently into the ocean.  He looked at the child and responded, “It mattered to that one.”

Don’t give in to apathy. Remember the power of hope.  If you can help someone, make the choice to do that.  Please note that I am not talking about enabling bad behavior or choices, but that’s a post for another day.

You know when you are acting with kindness, and the little stuff isn’t hard to do.  Your kindness matters to the one who receives it.  Good will in action may not save the world in a moment, but it does change it for the better right then and there.

Thank you to all of you who have changed my world for the better.  You inspire me to be braver, to be kinder, and to keep changing what I can for the better, too.

Love and light always – Joanna

Overcome

All Donations are NOT Created Equal

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This is a portion of the donations we received in one day at our house for pickup by families in need.  One day – how awesome is that!

My beloved city and state have been through so much.  We have watched our friends and families walking through chest deep flood water and cried with complete strangers as our hearts broke into a million pieces over and over again.  It has been so hard, but I have seen another side of this, too.  Insurmountable hurts have faded or melted away all together.  People have softened toward each other.  I recognize that reality will seep back in as time goes on, but the beauty I have seen over the past week will remain precious and treasured in my heart forever.

Most people in Houston area homes that were spared have taken in flood evacuees until a better long-term housing solution can be determined.  Countless shelters have been set up, and they have more donations and volunteers than they could ever use.  People race to places as a need is announced, and most of us have been turned away because there’s too much help.  It’s an awesome problem.

On a much smaller scale, several neighbors and I began collecting and sorting goods for area families who weren’t comfortable going to a shelter but still needed replacement clothing and bedding, etc.  They come by the house and pick up whatever they need for themselves and / or their friends and families.  Whenever people have asked me what kinds of donations would be best to help victims of the flood, I have repeatedly said, “Please think about the critical essentials you would want if you were stranded somewhere with your children for several days.”  The donations have poured in, and the tremendous generosity has left me awestruck.  Out of the darkness has emerged a stunning light of humanity that is impossible to articulate.

However something else has emerged out of the darkness as well…

doll

I’m sorry, but did you just donate a doll that crawled out of your TV while you watched “The Ring” a few years ago?

I recognize that people are giving these items without compensation and that they are free to the recipients.  I genuinely appreciate that countless families have taken time to look through their closets and toy baskets with the hope of sharing what they have with someone facing a horrific reality.

But those who lost their homes and belongings have enough wreckage to sift through.  They don’t need someone else’s garbage, too.

ketchup

When I was going through the donated foods, I initially thought that this was a bottle of BBQ sauce.   It wasn’t.

Let’s talk about food.  If it isn’t safe for you to consume, maybe we don’t give it to others either?  I can promise you that I have unintentionally donated expired food in the past as well, but this is beyond the pale.  Based on my beloved spice rack (you know the one!), I would bet that I have unintentionally fed some out of date foods to my family, too.  Sorry kids, but hey – at least now we will have the answer when we wonder why we get botulism someday!  Before you give food, please check expiration dates.

And then there’s clothing.

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This is my favorite donation box of all time.  Epic stuff right here.  Please note that this gem was with tons of other boxes of clothes.  It just happened to be a box that ended up with underwear.  I need to believe that this was a universal joke that only I would notice and not a warning by the person who packed it.

While this particular box did not match the description it seemed to indicate, we received too many sketchy undies.  That’s okay.  NEVER.

Underwear can be very hard to find in shelters because people often dislike donating them.  I get it.  Seriously.  I.  Get.  It.  While some people will make trips to the stores, most people won’t go out and buy new underwear for donation.  Consequently, shelters often accept gently used, good quality underwear.  Translation – No one wants your ratty, dirty, holey, broken elastic, formerly white panties.  No one.  NEVER EVER.  And I’m not even going to talk about the fact that some people gave serious lingerie.  The point is to try to help people get back on their feet – not off them.IMG_20170901_204443

And then you have socks.  There is always an endless need for socks.  However those old things that your heel and big toe peek through aren’t socks.  Those are rags you should use to clean your mirrors, or better yet, line your trash can (on the inside of a bag that will disappear sometime within the week).  In addition, the fluffy soft socks are fun, but when I say that people need essentials, your pajama party socks should not be in greater abundance than the normal day-to-day socks.  People can’t go to work in these.  They can’t clean their homes  while wearing these.  They need real socks.

We received the shoes below today.  Fabulous???  You bet your sassy butt they are!  Essentials?  Not so much.  With that said, I should note that whomever gets these shoes might also want to inquire about the lingerie mentioned above.

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A blue morph suit was received at the high school shelter this week.  The example pic is below in case you aren’t a weirdo and don’t know what that is.  Allow me to stop you before you see the photo and say, “But Joanna – every flood victim could use a blue morph suit.”  I hear you and normally I would 110% agree.  But that’s only true when we are talking about a GREEN morph suit.  No one in their right mind would wear the blue one.  That’s so last year’s flood attire.

morph suit

I promise it’s true.  A friend found a blue morph suit this week at our local shelter.  My greatest sadness is that she didn’t put the damn thing on and take a pic for me.

I would also like to give a shout out to all of the following attire donation choices:

  • Full length wool winters coats – These are always a must have in Texas in August as well as every single month of the year.  It’s important that our legs don’t get cold while we wear our shorts at Christmas.
  • Shirts with stained pits AND holes – Why have one when you can have both!?!?
  • Ugly Christmas sweaters – Thank you.  Just thank you.  Again, we all need this, and more than any other time, we need it in August in Texas.
  • Unbearably hideous clothing that is so bad that the tags never left them and never will – I don’t mean a little ugly.  I mean so intentionally ugly that we can tell that you hate your kid or were trying to win a contest (and clearly won).
  • Heavy winter scarves, thick winter hats, and ski gear – 85 degree Christmas will never have to feel cold ever again (when it rolls around months down the road).
  • Full bag of clothes than may have been covering parts of a decaying body – The bag o’ smell you dropped off was super fab and amazing!  I wanted to throw it away, but my trash can locked its lid tight and would not allow it.  I loved watching another volunteer drive away with the bag on the hood of her car because we were worried that the smell would melt the seats if it came inside her vehicle.
  • One shoe / one sock – We have had very few peg leg pirates picking up donations this week.  They all had boats, so they were fine.  No need to send more of those.

Moving on to housewares…

IMG_20170901_204432This could be my fault.  When I said essentials, I did not include the Texas dictionary definition, so maybe it’s a regional slang thang.  In Texas, essentials are usually taken to mean “stuff people actually need.”  I recognize that some states may view broken flamingo napkin rings and matching corn cob holders as imperative items, but to my knowledge, they aren’t on the list here.  Full disclosure – I may be giving someone something really cool of mine in exchange for these flamingos because I can’t effing believe that they exist.  It’s like I found a family of unicorns in the pile, and I just can’t set them free.  They are so funny, and I truly pray that one of my friends donated these and reads this post.  If so, tell me please and know that I will be showing up at your house weekly while eating corn in style.

A few more notable items that have been received include:

  • Wet pillows – Wow.  That’s EXACTLY how I would have wanted them, but I was uncomfortable asking people to be sure and moisten their pillows before bringing them.  Thank you for taking the initiative on behalf of others.
  • Clocks – Because why bring a watch when you can bring a whole clock.  If I had a dollar for the number of times I had been fleeing my home and wished that I had grabbed a clock instead of a watch…  (I would have NO DOLLARS.)  (Also I recognize that the thought may have been that someone might have wanted some decor items for their home, but these are not critical must have items on week one post flood.)
  • A deflated inner tube – So this would have been great with air during the actual flood.  Maybe a deflated inner tube is less useful today???  Clearly you didn’t grab your crap bag from the garage and bring it for donation.
  • Toiletries and cleaning supply bottles with one more squirt or spray – I, too, hate it when I mix up my donations and my recycling.  Of course that explains why you dropped off a whole box of these with the word DONATION hand-written on the side.  (Being used is not the issue.  Being garbage is the issue.)
  • Threadbare towels rife with holes and large patches of dried flaking mud – The crunchy ones with large areas of dried paint, chemicals, and animal ??? on them are fab, too.
  • Pregnancy test – Please be sure to request this in conjunction with your shoes (above) and lingerie (above above).

Please think before you donate.  Please be considerate of the people who will be sorting and distributing these, and much more importantly, be considerate of the people who will be receiving them.  Recognize what is helpful and what isn’t.  Share your valuables.  Don’t purge useless items when essentials are in need.

At the end of the day, 99% of the donations are wonderful.  And as for the people who give them, sort them, and distribute them?  Well, the shirt below pretty much sums up my sentiments about all of you.

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Please note – this is AWESOME and I am keeping it.  I will be exchanging this for another shirt out of my own closet, so the donation balance shall be maintained.  To whomever donated this —> I love you.

To the volunteers and those giving actual donations – I love you, I am thankful for you, and I truly appreciate everything that you do for others and for our communities.

Love, light, laughter, and incrediballs – Joanna  😉

***My husband is not happy about my writing this post because he is not down with shaming or being critical of others on social media.  Normally I am absolutely in agreement with him, but I strongly disagree on this topic.  It is truly bad behavior to pass off your junk to another.  Given the anonymous nature of donations, we can’t discuss it with the offenders directly.  I would mention it to them if I could, but I don’t know who left this stuff.  All I know is that my trash can runneth over with other people’s garbage that was initially flagged as donations.  It’s inconsiderate, and it isn’t kind.  Please think about what you give when you give.  Generosity from the heart is a true blessing.  Thank you for your consideration, love, and support for those in need.  Also thanks for keeping your skanky used lingerie out of our donation bags.  You can so keep that all for you!

#incrediballs

***Side note – Several people have been sending me pics of ridiculous donations that they have received since I originally posted this entry.   The  photo below was too fantastic not to highlight.  Rarely can one obtain unique art and tetanus simultaneously.  I don’t know why it’s so hard to find decor comprised of old, rusty barbed wire and hand cut sharp metal in stores nowadays, but it is so thank you donator for this rare gem!  I have requested that my friend please send the follow up photo of the dirty old band-aid that I’m certain she will find in the same shredded bag of goodies that contained this southwestern wonder.

Critical

Peculiar

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