Spotlight on U.S. Places

Ave Maria Grotto – Cullman, Alabama

In 2011 we thought we were ready to retire but were called to work large commercial  losses caused by the horrific tornado which struck Alabama and other southern states on April 27, 2011. We headquartered in Cullman, AL, for about six weeks and worked a 100-mile radius of there. This tornado was a mile and a half wide and stayed on the ground through the  entire state of Alabama. It then went through Georgia and the Carolinas but we only worked the Alabama claims, traveling over 2,000 miles in those six weeks.
Before leaving Cullman, we visited the Ave Maria Grotto at the Saint Bernard Abbey, a Catholic monastery founded in 1891 to enable the Benedictine monks to minister to the   German-speaking Catholic settlers in Alabama’s northern colonies. The Ave Maria Grotto is the creation of one of the pioneer Benedictine monks, Brother Joseph Zoetti (1878-1961). It is a beautifully landscaped, four-acre park for the Grotto, surrounded by 125 miniature reproductions of biblical scenes and famous buildings of the world.
If you’re ever in the South, be sure to visit the Ave Maria Grotto, located on the grounds of Saint Bernard Abbey, 1600 St. Bernard Drive SE, Cullman, Alabama 35055—Telephone: (256) 734-4110. Or visit their website at They have a great You-Tube video which shows more of the beautiful sculptures.






Laughlin, NV/Lake Havasu, AZ

In late May, 2009, we flew to Laughlin, Nev. and enjoyed?? the 100-degree days. Laughlin is centrally located between the Los Angeles Basin and Phoenix, Ariz., just 90 miles south of Las Vegas and is set in a rugged mountain terrain which gently slopes to the banks of the Colorado River.

Harrah's LaughlinHarrah's Laughlin2

We stayed at Harrah’s Hotel & Casino overlooking the Colorado River. Laughlin has 10 casinos and according to the World Casino Directory’s website,  their database says there are 12,365 gaming machines in Laughlin, and 365 total table games. You can click here for a complete list of casinos in Laughlin. Out of 50 cities in Nevada with legalized gambling, Laughlin ranks number 5 in number of casinos.

But, no, we didn’t just gamble. One day we boarded a jet boat and sped down the Colorado River to Lake Havasu, Ariz., where we had lunch near the London Bridge. It was 120 degrees in Lake Havasu that day, but at least the 3-hour trip each way was nice and breezy on the river. We had a nice lunch at a restaurant overlooking  the bridge and we  walked on the bridge after lunch.

In 1968, Robert P. McCulloch Sr., who founded the McCulloch Corp. that produced outboard motors, small engines and chainsaws, and who had developed Lake Havasu in the early 1960s, was awarded the bid for the bridge It took about $7.5 million to ship the 138 year-old “heap of stones” to Lake Havasu and reconstruct it over dry land.

Every piece is still numbered

The blocks were reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle and the arches were formed with the help of huge mounds of sand and dirt. The dirt was then dredged from underneath the arches, forming the one-mile lagoon-blue Channel.


Mississippi Gulf Coast

In 1998 we worked Hurricane Georges in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, primarily Biloxi and Gulfport. Then in 2005-08 we worked Hurricane Katrina, albeit from a desk in Schaumburg, IL. Although New Orleans was devastated by Katrina and received the bulk of the news, the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast was decimated as well, far worse than Georges. Because we are so familiar with this area, we decided to fly to New Orleans in January, 2009, to check on the progress.

We rented a car and drove the Gulf Highway (Hwy. 90) in Mississippi. It was quite depressing to see the slow recovery. Many buildings are abandoned and there are now bare foundations where beautiful anti-bellum homes once stood. Residents tell us the cost of insurance now has skyrocketed to the point where many can’t afford to rebuild or even stay in the area.

Former site of Grand Casino

The Grand Casino in Biloxi, one of about 14 pre-Katrina casinos along the Gulf Highway ended up across Hwy. 90. Harrah’s had planned to build a new Margaritaville Casino on this site, but the because of the economy slowdown, plans are now on hold. The Isle of Capri Casino ended up in the middle of Hwy. 90. And the Hard Rock Casino, which was under construction and about to open when Katrina hit, was totally destroyed. For a great satellite view of these casinos before and after Katrina, see Once known as Las Vegas of the south, the area now lists 11 casinos along the Gulf Coast.

Many areas of New Orleans still show the effects of Katrina, but the French Quarters, which is on higher ground than much of New Orleans, didn’t suffer as much damage. We did stop at Café Du Monde and enjoyed our favorite  beignets.


“A Day at the Kennedy Space Center”

On Wednesday, 24 November 2004, we had planned to fly to Columbia, SC to visit my aunt and uncle and their family for Thanksgiving. We arrived at the Orlando Airport around 7:30 a.m. and found the kiosks at the Delta check-in area to be very busy. When we finally got to an open kiosk we found it wasn’t working properly and tried to get the attention of one of the attendants. We finally did and he tried the kiosk and couldn’t get it to work either so he told us to pick up the “white phone.” When we explained our situation to the voice on the phone we were told that we had passed the required time to check in and would not be allowed to board our flight. The fact that we arrived on time and were now “late” because of their malfunctioning equipment made no difference . . . we were now late and that’s that!! I won’t dwell on the rest of that conversation. Let’s just say that from this time until eternity we will ALWAYS try to book flights with Joe’s Puddle Jumper Airlines before we book with DELTA.

The next flight to Columbia was not until 7:30 p.m. so we were going to miss the whole day with the family. So now what? Go back to our condo and wait all day? By this time it was about 8:30 a.m., so we decided to go to the Kennedy Space Center which we had planned to visit before we left the Orlando area anyway. What started as a bad day actually turned out great as the KSC is a fascinating place to visit.

The KSC is located about 55 miles east of Orlando. We would give you the address, but this is from their website: The Kennedy Space Center (KSC) itself actually does not have a physical address because it is comprised of many facilities spread out over 144,000 acres. It has its own postal zip code. The KSC Visitor Complex is located on KSC property and is located near the intersection of State Road 405 and State Road 3. If you are looking for driving directions, you can go to a mapping website such as and put “KSC” in the “city” section, “FL” in the state section, and “32899” in the zip code section. It will pull up a map with the center of the map in the restricted area of KSC. Then just zoom out to level 6 and you should see generally how to get to the Visitor Complex although it is not marked on that particular map.

STANDARD ADMISSION: The Standard Admission ticket which provides admission to the Kennedy Space Center tour, all the Visitor Complex movies, exhibits and shows. This ticket does not include admission to the Astronaut Hall of Fame or use of its simulators. Please Note: Access to Kennedy Space Center is restricted on certain launch days. These tickets do not include Space Shuttle launch viewing or access to the Kennedy Space Center on launch day. Call 321-449-4444 for hours of operation on launch day. For Space Shuttle launch viewing tickets, please visit the Launch Viewing Tickets section of this site.

Adult Standard Admission: $30.00
Child Standard Admission (ages 3 to 11 yrs): $20.00

HOURS OF OPERATION: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is open every day of the year, except December 25 and certain launch days. Current operating hours are from 9:00 a.m to 6:00 p.m. (The Astronaut Hall of Fame is open from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER BUS TOUR: Runs approximately 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Tours start at 10:00 a.m. and run continuously every 15 minutes. Last tour departs at 2:50 p.m. There are two stops along the way, the LC-39 Observation Gantry and the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

The 60-foot-tall Launch Complex 39 Observation Gantry provides a breathtaking 360-view of the two giant Shuttle Launch Pads, 39A and 39B. The panorama also encompasses the Launch Control Center, the well-traveled crawlerway and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. A theater presentation and interactive room at the gantry’s base give you a behind-the-scenes briefing on what it takes to launch and land every NASA Space Shuttle.

It was truly a great day, even though it started out sour. If you’re ever in the area be sure to put the Kennedy Space Center on your “must see” list. By the way, we did make it back to the Orlando Airport to catch our flight to Columbia where we had a great Thanksgiving, albeit a day shorter than we’d planned.

Map to KSC from Orlando

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Go to to get this map for that function to work.


“Mardi Gras in Mobile: Where It Really Began”

It didn’t take long after we first arrived in Mobile, Alabama, to learn that Mardi Gras actually began in Mobile. Mobilians are particularly proud of that fact, even though New Orleans gets all the publicity.

Here’s what the Mobile Chamber of Commerce has to say about it on their website:

General madness overtakes Mobile annually in the months, weeks and days preceding Ash Wednesday as chants of “Moon Pie! Moon Pie!” and “Throw me something Mister!” fills the air in historic Mobile. The rules governing civilized behavior are temporarily suspended…it’s Mardi Gras in “Mobile, the Mother of Mystics.”

New Orleans may have the better known celebration, but Mobile’s was the first and arguably the best. Legend tells us that Mobile’s earliest settlers apparently couldn’t wait to get started. Mobile’s first Mardi Gras celebration dates back to 1703, only one year after the city’s founding. Historians disagree on who was responsible for organizing the celebration. Originally called Boeuf Gras (Fatted Ox), the celebration was one of feasting and revelry on the day preceding Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season which leads to Easter. The celebration, now called Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras Day.

It was in 1857 that the Mobile members of Cowbellian de Rakin Society, formed in 1830 traveled to New Orleans and assisted with the formation of the Crewe of Comus, considered New Orleans’ most prestigious Mardi Gras society. Dozens of mystic societies build colorful Mardi Gras floats and parade through downtown Mobile during the weeks preceding Mardi Gras Day. Masked society members throw doubloons, candies, beads and moon pies to excited crowds that scamper about for the Mardi Gras memorabilia. And Mobile’s celebration is good, safe fun the whole family can enjoy. Enjoy Mardi Gras where it all began, in “Mobile, Mother of Mystics.”

So, on Thursday, 3 February 2005, a group of us went to downtown Mobile and watched the “Striper’s Parade.” We counted at least 15 floats and probably as many or more marching bands throughout the evening. This parade was one of a countless number of them during the weeks preceding Fat Tuesday but it was the only one we had time to attend. It was great fun and we caught hundreds of beads, moon pies and other Mardi Gras goodies thrown from the floats.

The floats were very creative

Some of the street people during Mardi Gras in Mobile