U.S. hostage Jeffery Woodke has been released after more than six years in captivity in West Africa, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said Monday.  

Woodke was kidnapped from his home in Abalak, Niger, where he was a humanitarian aid worker, by men who ambushed and killed his guards, forced Woodke into their truck at gunpoint and drove toward the border with Mali. The incident happened Oct. 14, 2016. 

According to Niger’s interior minister, Hamadou Souley, Nigerien authorities secured Woodke’s release from Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM, a terrorist group active in West Africa and the Sahel. 

“The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him,” Sullivan wrote in a tweet Monday, referring to Woodke. “I thank so many across our government who’ve worked tirelessly toward securing his freedom.” 

Woodke’s wife, Els Woodke, told The New York Times that she was notified of his release and told he was in Niger’s capital city of Niamey.  

A U.S. official confirmed that Woodke was in Niamey and said he was being medically evaluated. Another senior administration official briefing reporters said that the U.S. had not paid a ransom or made other concessions.  

Separately, French journalist Olivier Dubois was also released following his kidnapping April 8, 2021 in Mali. Dubois posted a video on Twitter saying he was tired but felt fine. 

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement Monday, saying it was “overjoyed and hugely relieved” by Dubois’ release. The group had long campaigned for his release. 

The developments come days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger. 

Some information from this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.  

VOA’s French to Africa service and Annika Hammerschlag contributed to this report. 

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U.S. officials said current sanctions on China’s new defense chief, Li Shangfu, will not prevent him from conducting official meetings with his American counterparts, nor is the U.S. government considering issuing an exemption for or waiving Li’s sanction designation.

The People’s Republic of China named General Li as its minister of national defense on March 12. The U.S. has not proposed a call between Li and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

In 2018, the U.S. sanctioned Li under the so-called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) when he headed the Equipment Development Department of the Chinese military.

The sanctions were related to China’s purchase of ten SU-35 combat aircrafts in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018, according to the State Department.

A State Department spokesperson told VOA that “CAATSA sanctions do not necessarily prohibit sanctioned persons from meeting with U.S. government officials.”

“Visa records are confidential under U.S. law. We therefore cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases,” said the spokesperson when asked if the existing sanctions would ban Li from traveling to the U.S. to conduct official meetings.

But to Beijing, seeing the United States lift the sanctions against Li as a goodwill gesture may be deemed a critical step to resuming military talks between the defense chiefs of the two nations.

Experts said sanctions should not be the reason against having deconfliction talks.

“Most of the meetings between our defense secretary and the Chinese defense minister recently have been conducted in third countries—for example, at the Shangri-La Dialogues in Singapore,” said Dennis Wilder, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, referring to Asia’s premier annual defense and security forum.

“In that case, there would be no reason not to have the meeting, even though [General Li] is under sanctions, because meeting in the third country makes those sanctions quite meaningless,” Wilder told VOA on Monday.

While General Li remains blocked from any U.S. property interests, financial transfers, payments or foreign exchange under U.S. jurisdiction due to current sanctions, President Joe Biden’s administration continues to seek open lines of communication with PRC military leaders to ensure competition does not spill into conflict, said a Pentagon spokesperson.

Secretary Austin “is able to engage in official United States government business” with General Li despite the sanctions, the spokesperson added.

The U.S. and Chinese militaries have had working level communications both in Washington and Beijing, but no leader-level military talks since November 2022 despite U.S. requests.

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Judith Thompson sits straight and still in her chair, eyes bright, warming herself from the cold. In Mandarin, she tells VOA she taught English at the Southwestern University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing, China. But those days of doing missionary work with her husband of 49 years are long gone. “I’ve never been homeless before,” the American woman says. “It’s a whole new experience for me to adapt.”

Thompson has been staying at the Springs Rescue Mission since November. She is part of the homeless shelter’s Hope Program, which includes job training. Thompson plans to return to the mission field, in outreach. “I want to be God’s light to give people hope and encouragement.”

The Christ-centered rescue mission and similar groups have reduced homelessness by 50% in Colorado Springs. Mission president and CEO Jack Briggs credits the success to community partnership and treating all clients as humans. “It’s people. I think we miss that sometimes. People on the streets are people.”

Addicts welcome

To accomplish that, the mission meets people “where they are,” Briggs says. Those with legal issues and/or addictions can enter. The single entry to the shelter, called the welcome center, increases the safety and security that homeless people seek.

Visitors and clients walk through a metal detector, and personal items are run through a scanner. Officers employed directly by the shelter physically search clients before entry. All drugs, alcohol and weapons are removed and placed in a locker, should the client want them back upon exiting.

Anyone who enters can hear barking coming from the next room, the shelter’s kennel. Springs Rescue Mission does not want clients choosing between a roof over their head or their dog, oftentimes the only family they have.

Clients do agree, however, to part with their clothes, which in many cases are their only possessions. The shelter launders and folds them, then places them into one of 300 red lockers. “When we build that trust and a relationship, that’s the starting point to get better from the situation they happen to be in,” Briggs says.

200 loads of laundry

Thomas McDonald, who, with the mission’s help, recovered from addictions to alcohol and cocaine, coordinates the area that includes the showers and the laundry. McDonald says he manages 200 loads of laundry daily, which “helps keep me accountable for my actions.”

Clients typically spend time working and living outside the shelter before applying for a job at the mission. Community partners step in with job leads, and the mission helps 40 people a month get jobs. Briggs says that is only possible because of the rescue mission’s job training program.

“They aren’t work ready — they just aren’t. They’ve lost the skillset, they have lost the personal hygiene, they maybe have lost the motivation,” he says. Once they graduate, the mission vouches for them to liaisons in the community.

The mission boasts a dining hall that serves 500 meals daily — again, run by former clients. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when catering businesses around Colorado Springs lacked employees, the Springs Rescue Mission recognized the need and began a catering preparation business at the shelter.

Head Chef Matt De Laurell, a former methamphetamine and cocaine addict, explained, “We do everything from little picnics all the way up to big 1,000-people corporate events.” During COVID, they also supplied first responders with well-appreciated hot meals at the end of their 12-hour shifts.

USAF general to CEO

Jack Briggs was a retired U.S. Air Force major general when he was hired as president and CEO of Springs Rescue Mission. His military attention to detail is evident as he pulls out his cellphone and shows numerous statistics from the “client information gathering system.”

Unlike other shelters, Springs Rescue Mission has a full-time data analyst on staff. Says Briggs, “We gather all the data that we can at a macro level for the whole place. But then we can break it down by individuals … for care.”

Briggs says that the statistics show about 30% of his clients graduate with enough “skills, talent and capacity” to get jobs and live independently, but that recidivism after graduation lowers that number.

Jesus greets all

Religion is at the center of the nonprofit’s philosophy. An oversize bronze sculpture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns stands above the courtyard, where clients quietly talk outdoors when the weather allows.

It wasn’t until the sculpture was in place two years ago during an $18 million renovation that Briggs realized Jesus’ index finger pointed to the enormous cross atop the welcome center.

A handwritten sign in the dining hall reads, “Need Prayer? Just ask, we would love to pray with you.”

Jack Briggs never shies away from crediting God for the rescue mission’s success.

“That’s the starting point of everything. When we focus on that, we tend to do good work. When we think it’s about Jack or this particular program or something like that, we tend to get off track.”

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Daniel Duggan is wanted in the United States on charges including conspiracy to unlawfully export defense services to China and money laundering. Lawyers for the former U.S. marine, accused of helping to train Chinese military pilots, have said they are investigating whether he was ‘trapped’ by American authorities who are seeking his extradition from Australia.  

Duggan had applied for an Australian government job in aviation that needed security clearance. That was initially granted but was revoked soon after he returned to Australia.     

The former U.S. marine pilot’s lawyer, Dennis Miralis, believes the extradition request is politically motivated and says that his client could well have been entrapped.   

“It is striking to us that a sequence of events like that could occur,” Miralis told reporters Monday outside the court in Sydney. “We are exploring at this stage whether or not he was lured back to Australia by the U.S., where the U.S. knew that he would be in a jurisdiction where he would be capable of being extradited back to the U.S.”  

“That is a matter of grave significance,” Miralis said. “At this stage these are matters under investigation.”    

Authorities in Washington have accused Duggan of training Chinese fighter pilots and believe he’s violated the arms export control act.     

He was arrested last October in the Australian state of New South Wales and has recently been moved from a remand center in Sydney to a maximum-security prison.     

His legal team has filed a submission to the U.N. Human Rights Commission claiming that his incarceration breaches the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.    

The Australian government approved a request for his extradition almost three months ago.   

The former marine airman is an Australian citizen who’s renounced his U.S. citizenship.  He denies breaking any law and has said he was training civilian not military pilots.    

Australia, the United States and Britain in recent months have launched a crackdown on former military pilots being recruited by China.   

A magistrate in Sydney will decide if Duggan is eligible for extradition to the United States to face criminal charges. The case has been adjourned until May 1. 

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A Pentagon study has found high rates of cancer among military pilots and for the first time has shown that ground crews who fuel, maintain and launch those aircraft are also getting sick. 

The data had long been sought by retired military aviators who have raised alarms for years about the number of air and ground crew members they knew who had cancer. They were told that earlier military studies had found they were not at greater risk than the general U.S. population. 

In its yearlong study of almost 900,000 service members who flew on or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017, the Pentagon found that air crew members had an 87% higher rate of melanoma and a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer, while men had a 16% higher rate of prostate cancer and women a 16% higher rate of breast cancer. Overall, the air crews had a 24% higher rate of cancer of all types. 

The study showed ground crews had a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancers, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer and a 9% higher rate of kidney or renal cancers, while women had a 7% higher rate of breast cancer. The overall rate for cancers of all types was 3% higher. 

There was some good news reported as well. Both ground and air crews had far lower rates of lung cancer, and air crews also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancers. 

The data compared the service members with the general U.S. population after adjusting for age, sex and race. 

The Pentagon said the new study was one of the largest and most comprehensive to date. An earlier study had looked at just Air Force pilots and had found some higher rates of cancer, while this one looked across all services and at both air and ground crews. Even with the wider approach, the Pentagon cautioned that the actual number of cancer cases was likely to be even higher because of gaps in the data, which it said it would work to remedy. 

The study “proves that it’s well past time for leaders and policy makers to move from skepticism to belief and active assistance,” said retired Air Force Col. Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, which had lobbied the Pentagon and Congress for help. Alcazar serves on the association’s medical issues committee. 

The study was required by Congress in the 2021 defense bill. Now, because higher rates were found, the Pentagon must conduct an even bigger review to try to understand why the crews are getting sick. 

Isolating potential causes is difficult, and the Pentagon was careful to note that this study “does not imply that military service in air crew or ground crew occupations causes cancer, because there are multiple potential confounding factors that could not be controlled for in this analysis,” such as family histories, smoking or alcohol use. 

But aviation crews have long asked for the Pentagon to look closely at some of the environmental factors they are exposed to, such as jet fuels and solvents used to clean and maintain jet parts, sensors and their power sources in aircraft nose cones, and the massive radar systems on the decks of the ships they land on. 

When Navy Capt. Jim Seaman would come home from a deployment aboard an aircraft carrier, his gear would reek of jet fuel, his widow, Betty Seaman, said. The A-6 Intruder pilot died in 2018 at age 61 of lung cancer. Betty Seaman still has his gear stored and it still smells of fuel, “which I love,” she said. 

She and others wonder if there’s a link. She said crews would talk about how even the ship’s water systems would smell of fuel. 

She said she and others have mixed feelings about finally seeing in data what they have suspected for years about the aviation cancers. But “it has the potential to do a lot of good as far as early communication, early detection,” she said. 

The study found that when crew members were diagnosed with cancer, they were more likely to survive than members of the general population, which the study suggested was because they were diagnosed earlier due to regular required medical checkups and were more likely to be in better health because of their military fitness requirements. 

The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had gaps that likely led to an undercount of cancer cases. 

The military heath system database used in the study did not have reliable cancer data until 1990, so it may not have included pilots who flew early-generation jets in the prior decades. 

The study also did not include cancer data from the Department of Veterans Affairs or state cancer registries, which means it did not capture cases from former crew members who got sick after leaving the military medical system. 

“It is important to note that study results may have differed had additional older former service members been included,” it said. 

To remedy that, the Pentagon is now going to pull data from those registries to add to the total count, the study said. 

The second phase of the study will try to isolate causes. The 2021 bill requires the Defense Department not only to identify “the carcinogenic toxicants or hazardous materials associated with military flight operations,” but also determine the type of aircraft and locations where diagnosed crews served. 

After her husband got sick, Betty Seaman asked him if he would have chosen differently, knowing his service might be linked to his cancer. 

“I flat-out asked Jim. And he, without hesitation, said, ‘I would have still done it.'” 

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Miami Beach officials imposed a curfew beginning Sunday night during spring break after two fatal shootings and rowdy, chaotic crowds that police have had difficulty controlling. 

The city said in a news release the curfew would be from 11:59 p.m. Sunday until 6 a.m. Monday, with an additional curfew likely to be put in place Thursday through next Monday, March 27. The curfew mainly affects South Beach, the most popular party location for spring breakers. 

The release said the two separate shootings Friday night and early Sunday that left two people dead and “excessively large and unruly crowds” led to the decision. The city commission plans a meeting Monday to discuss potential further restrictions next week. 

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said in a video message posted Sunday that the crowds and presence of numerous firearms has “created a peril that cannot go unchecked” despite massive police presence and many city-sponsored activities meant to keep people busy. 

“We don’t ask for spring break in our city. We don’t want spring break in our city. It’s too rowdy, it’s too much disorder and it’s too difficult to police,” Gelber said. 

The latest shooting happened about 3:30 a.m. Sunday on Ocean Drive in South Beach, according to Miami Beach police. A male was shot and died later at a hospital, and officers chased down a suspect on foot, police said on Twitter. Their identities were not released, nor were any possible charges. 

In the Friday night shooting, one male victim was killed, and another seriously injured, sending crowds scrambling in fear from restaurants and clubs into the streets as gunshots rang out. Police detained one person at the scene and found four firearms, but no other details have been made available. 

Under the curfew, people must leave businesses before midnight, although hotels can operate later only in service to their guests. The city release said restaurants can stay open only for delivery and the curfew won’t apply to residents, people going to and from work, emergency services and hotel guests. Some roads will be closed off and arriving hotel guests may have to show proof of their reservations. 

Last year, the city imposed a midnight curfew following two shootings, also on Ocean Drive. The year before that, there were about 1,000 arrests and dozens of guns confiscated during a rowdy spring break that led Miami Beach officials to take steps aimed at calming the situation. 

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When the U.S. government announced this month that it had stepped in to take over Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank, it was a 90-year-old Great Depression-era agency that took the lead in assuring depositors that their funds were safe and quelling a bank run that threatened broader damage to the industry.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took control of SVB on March 10 and Signature Bank two days later, moves that rendered the publicly traded stock of both institutions worthless but preserved other assets for distribution to account holders and each bank’s creditors.

In a decision some found surprising, the FDIC announced that all deposits held at both banks would be fully guaranteed. Historically, depositors have been protected up to $250,000, a limit designed to keep the overwhelming majority of individual depositors safe from loss.

The agency decided, however, that to prevent “contagion” — panic about one failing bank spreading to broader panic about others — it would make all depositors whole.

The decision was also likely motivated by the fact that many businesses, primarily in the tech sector, kept large accounts at SVB that they used to meet payroll and ordinary business expenses. The impact of so many companies suddenly being unable to pay thousands of employees would have been hard to estimate but could have potentially damaged the economy.

The FDIC and the Biden administration were quick to deny that the two banks had been the subjects of a “bailout,” stressing that bank executives had been fired, stockholders’ equity had been wiped out, and any funds supplied by the agency to make depositors whole would come from an insurance fund financed by premiums paid by insured banks.

The FDIC, however, will have to raise assessments on banks to replenish what money it spends on the resolution of SVB and Signature. Banks will likely pass these costs on to their customers by charging higher fees or increasing interest on loans.


History of the FDIC

The FDIC was created in 1933, after the U.S. weathered years of panic during the Great Depression, which led to the closures of thousands of banks. Between 1921 and 1929, approximately 5,700 banks across the U.S. failed, some because of poor management and many because depositors lost confidence and demanded withdrawals so rapidly that the banks simply ran out of cash.

Things worsened between 1929 and 1933, when nearly 10,000 banks across the country failed. During a particularly difficult week in February 1933, bank panics were so pervasive that governors in almost all U.S. states acted to temporarily close all banks.

The FDIC was created in the aftermath of that crisis, when the federal government finally acted on a long-delayed plan to establish national deposit insurance. The agency originally guaranteed individual deposits of up to $2,500, a level that has been periodically increased over the decades.

The agency is funded by premiums that banks and savings associations pay for deposit insurance coverage. It is managed by a board of five presidential appointees. The current chair of the FDIC is Martin J. Gruenberg. By statute, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Comptroller of the Currency, whose agency supervises nationally chartered banks, are also members. Two other appointees round out the board, which cannot have more than three members of the same political party.

In its nine decades, the FDIC has closed hundreds of failed banks, but insured deposits have always been repaid in full.

Promoting financial stability

“The mission of the FDIC is to promote financial stability,” said Diane Ellis, the former director of the agency’s Division of Insurance and Research. “The FDIC does that by exercising several authorities. One is to provide deposit insurance so that bank depositors can be confident that they’ll get their money back regardless of what happens with their bank.”

In addition, the agency has the authority to “resolve” failed banks, which can involve selling the bank outright to another institution, creating a “bridge” bank that provides ongoing services to depositors while the agency works toward a resolution, or selling off the bank’s assets to return as much money as possible to depositors whose holdings exceed the coverage limit.

Ellis, now a senior managing director at the banking network IntraFi, noted that the agency also has oversight authority over the banks it insures.

“For open banks, examiners conduct regular examinations to make sure banks are operating in a safe and sound manner … promoting a healthy, stable banking system, which is important for economic growth,” she told VOA.


Avoiding ‘moral hazard’

When the FDIC was established, capping the standard insurance amount per depositor was a central feature of its design. The creators of the agency were concerned about a problem called “moral hazard.” They worried that if the federal government guaranteed 100% of deposits, individuals and businesses would fail to exercise due diligence when deciding what banks to trust with their money, and that lack of scrutiny would result in banks taking excessive risks.

“Legislators wanted to strike a balance, to protect people up to a certain amount, but not everything, so that there’d be an incentive for people to make sure that their money was in a safe bank rather than a dangerous one,” said John Bovenzi, who served as chief operating officer and deputy to the chairman of the FDIC from 1999 to 2009.

Bovenzi, the co-founder of the Bovenzi Group, a financial services consultancy, told VOA that he was initially surprised by the decision of the FDIC and other regulators to make all uninsured depositors whole.

“These weren’t the largest institutions. Silicon Valley and Signature, they were in sort of a second tier and weren’t viewed as ‘too big to fail,'” he said.

However, Bovenzi said, it soon became apparent to regulators that there were other banks in the country that operated with business models similar to that of SVB, which had large amounts of low-interest securities on its books, the value of which was being systematically undercut by the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates dramatically over the past year.

“What happened was that they saw there was too much spillover effect to other institutions, so they invoked what’s called a ‘systemic risk exception,'” he said. Had this not been the case, he said, the FDIC would have had to conduct the closing in a way that resulted in the least cost to it and the government to save money, “and that would have meant uninsured taking losses. By protecting the uninsured, the FDIC raises its own costs to cover it. And so it needed to say, ‘We don’t want to do it for the institution, but we need to do it for the system.'”

Setting a precedent

The decision to protect all deposits at SVB and Signature was not unique. During the financial crisis sparked by widespread defaults in the subprime mortgage sector from 2007 to 2010, regulators shuttered several hundred banks in the space of a few years, and implemented a policy of protecting all deposits to avoid increasing the damage to the broader economy.

The decision to do so for SVB and Signature, though, absent such a widespread crisis, has raised questions about whether a precedent has been set that will lead depositors to expect to be rescued by the government if their bank fails.

In testimony before Congress Thursday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the treatment of SVB and Signature should not be taken as a signal that similar protection will be extended to other banks in the future.

Such action, she said, would take place only when “failure to protect uninsured depositors would create systemic risk and significant economic and financial consequences.”

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Shannon Castellano and Travis Methvin should have spent this weekend seeing world-famous waterfalls on the Havasupai Tribe Reservation in the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona.

Instead, the two friends from San Diego spent Friday night along with 40 other hikers camped out on a helipad. But sleep was elusive because tribal members warned that an emergency services helicopter could potentially land anytime during the night.

“Yeah, so we didn’t really sleep,” Castellano said Saturday while driving to a hotel in Sedona. “I just kept one eye open really and one ear open … You just do not expect any of that to happen. So, I think I’m still in shock that I’m not even there right now.”

Tourists hoping to reach the breathtaking waterfalls on the reservation instead went through harrowing flood evacuations.

The official Havasupai Tribe Tourism Facebook page reported Friday that flooding had washed away a bridge to the campground. An unknown number of campers were evacuated to Supai Village, with some being rescued by helicopter.

The campground is in a lower-lying area than the village of Supai. Some hikers had to camp in the village. Others who weren’t able to get to the village because of high water were forced to camp overnight on a trail.

But floodwaters were starting to recede as of Saturday morning, according to the tribe’s Facebook post.

Visitors with the proper permits will be allowed to hike to the village and campground. They will be met with tribal guides, who will help them navigate around creek waters on a back trail to get to the campground.

Tourists will not be permitted to take pictures. The back trail goes past sites considered sacred by the tribe.

Meanwhile, the tribe said in its statement that it has “all hands on deck” to build a temporary bridge to the campground.

Abbie Fink, a spokesperson for the tribe, referred to the tribe’s Facebook page when reached for comment Saturday.

Methvin and Castellano decided to leave by helicopter Saturday rather than navigate muddy trails with a guide. Despite losing money on a pre-paid, three-day stay, Methvin says they can still try to salvage their trip. Having only received permits last month, he feels especially sad for hikers they met with reservations from 2020.

“They waited three years to get there,” Methvin said. “At least we have the ability to go do something else versus having that whole weekend ruined.”

From Supai to Sedona, several areas of northern Arizona have been slammed this week by storms. The resulting snow combined with snowmelt at higher elevations has wreaked havoc on highways, access roads and even city streets.

The flooding of the Havasupai campground comes as the tribe reopened access last month to its reservation and various majestic blue-green waterfalls — for the first time since March 2020. The tribe opted to close to protect its members from the coronavirus. Officials then decided to extend the closure through last year’s tourism season.

At the beginning of this year, President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration initiated by the Havasupai Tribe, freeing up funds for flood damage sustained in October. Flooding at that time had destroyed several bridges and left downed trees on trails necessary for tourists and transportation of goods into Supai Village.

Permits to visit are highly coveted. Pre-pandemic, the tribe received an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 visitors per year to its reservation deep in a gorge west of Grand Canyon National Park. The area is reachable only by foot or helicopter, or by riding a horse or mule. Visitors can either camp or stay in a lodge.

Castellano is already planning to try to get a permit again later this year if there are cancellations. “We just want to see i in all its glory, not muddy falls,” she said.

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