By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Smith's family moved into Palma Nova in 2005. At one point, eight members of the family, including three small children, occupied the three-bedroom trailer.
Looking back, Smith feels foolish for not recognizing that the water was tainted.
"When we first moved in here, Danielle said, 'Mom, there's something wrong with the water.' I grew up with well water on a farm, and it was the same yellowish color, so I was like, 'Oh, just deal with it.'
"You assume that if you're paying for your water, it's safe to drink."
Danielle opted for bottled water. The rest of the family ignored the funky smell and color of the Ferncrest water. They cooked and bathed with it; they used it to fill formula bottles for Smith's three grandkids, the oldest of whom is now 4.
The first warning letter from Ferncrest arrived seven months into their stay at Palma Nova. To Deb Smith, it read like a foreign language. "I don't speak technical," she says. She zeroed in on the section, in bold print, that said she didn't need to switch to bottled water. That translated, in her mind, to mean the water was safe to drink. She tossed the letter in the trash.
Smith didn't give the water much thought again until a few weeks ago, when neighbors who had read the letters more carefully caught her up to speed. "It scared me to death," Smith says.
Daughter Shannon immediately left with the three grandkids to live at the other grandmother's home in Tamarac. Smith, her husband, and Danielle are going to stay with relatives in Indiana. The move out of state was a tough decision, both financially and emotionally. The Smiths originally bought the doublewide in 2005 for $44,000, and it was almost paid off. They're selling the home back to the dealer for just $5,000.
Smith says she couldn't find a trailer park in Broward County that would accept them because of her poor credit history. Her credit is shot because she owes Cleveland Clinic $150,000 in bills that her health insurance wouldn't cover. Her blood pressure spiked after the eviction notice, prompting a doctor to warn her that she could "stroke out" if she doesn't relax. And it's difficult to relax with all of Palma Nova in upheaval.
So, Indiana it is.
Boxes are stacked against a living-room wall that used to be covered with pictures of the grandbabies. Smith caresses a red velvet Christmas dress she bought for 2-year-old Lily. "This is probably the first year that she'll really be into Christmas. And we're going to miss it, which sucks," Smith complains. Maybe someone will email pictures of the little girl with strawberry-blond ringlets tearing into presents.
On September 11, Palma Nova residents march to Davie's Town Hall to protest the trailer park's closing. One after another, tearful residents step up to the podium to plead for help from town officials. The stories, like the one about the widow and single mother who bought her mobile home just two weeks before the park announced it would close, are heartbreaking.
Outrage mounts with each testimony. Where will they all go? How will they pay $10,000 or more to transport each home to another park? Caroll Payan's son insists that she share her own tale. Maybe, he offers, her words will help somebody. She's nervous about speaking English before a crowd, but she's angry enough to give it a stab. A man steps in to translate, so her words carry through the country-western-style hall in both English and Spanish.
She speaks slowly, her bespectacled son standing by her side. She explains that during her first few years living in the park, she did not receive any notice that the water was contaminated. "Now I have an illness that's like cancer. My hair is falling out. I'm undergoing chemotherapy." She has been diagnosed with Wegener's syndrome, a disease that can be treated with chemo. Renal failure is a complication of Wegener's, a rare illness with an uncertain origin.
To illustrate the point, she runs fingers through her thinning hair. The gentle movement releases a fistful of strands.
"The doctors are telling me that it could be because of the water that I drank."
Jaws drop. The residents packed inside Town Hall gasp. They too received the warning letters from Ferncrest Utilities. The letters featured scary words, like cancer, alongside assurances that Ferncrest customers could keep drinking the water. Many never suspected that the water could be that dangerous.
Toni Crisante sits next to Deb Smith at the meeting. The Crisante household switched to bottled drinking water years ago, after it received the first warning letter from Ferncrest.
Later, Crisante stands in her living room and explains that she plans to waste no time vacating Palma Nova. She wants to beat the stampede. Plus, she suspects conditions in the park will deteriorate as the move-out deadline nears. "You want to see some truly desperate people? Come back here in a few months," Crisante advises.
Crisante, 46, speaks in tough tones. She aspires to be as hardy as her mother, a former race-car driver who competed when she was eight months pregnant. Crisante figures her mother would be proud to see how well she has held things together, even though she crumpled onto her front lawn, in tears, after receiving the eviction notice.