By Michael E. Miller
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Crisante points to a grate in the street outside her bedroom window and says the sewer was always overflowing. "If it rained, or certain times of the year, it would just flow over, and this whole road would be nothing but sewer water. And then it would roll into our driveway.
"I like my windows open in the wintertime, when it's cool. Save on the electric bill. Get some fresh air in the house. You know? And we couldn't keep the windows open because the damned smell was so bad."
It smelled, and looked, she says, like an overflowing, crap-filled toilet.
"Ferncrest would send a guy over in a golf cart with a big five-gallon pail and put this stuff that smells like some type of chlorine. Very strong. And just powder it all around it. And tell you 'Don't step in it. Don't get in it.' The kids don't even know what it is. They ride through it. Step through it. Whatever. Barefooted or not, it don't matter."
Crisante moved into Palma Nova with her parents 26 years ago. When the folks passed away, she inherited the three-bedroom trailer. Now, her brother, his girlfriend, and their three children live there too. It's tough for the extended family to make ends meet, even though all three adults work. "That there is my life savings," Crisante says dryly, pointing to a five-gallon plastic jug full of coins.
The Crisantes go through ten gallons of bottled water every two days. Even the dog, a 9-year-old boxer named Chance, gets bottled water. They still use water from the tap, though, to cook, bathe, and brush their teeth. Toni has irritable bowel syndrome. Her brother's 37-year-old girlfriend, Alicia Smith, was recently hospitalized for seizures and migraines. Smith's 13-year-old son, Peirson, has colitis, a painful gastrointestinal ailment. "Hopefully, the things we've got won't become serious," Crisante says. "But you never know."
Neighbors up and down the street tick off mystery ailments — chronic bacterial infections, hair falling out, strange lumps — that they blame on the water. Even so, many residents are considering signing, or have already signed, paperwork releasing the Formans from any liability. The paperwork, they believe, is an unavoidable part of the moving process.
Toni Crisante, as well as her next-door neighbor, Nancy Hernandez, signed. Hernandez has lived in the park for seven years; a year ago, Hernandez says she spent five days in the hospital with severe stomach pain. She can't remember the name of the bacteria that caused the pain. "The doctor told me I'm going to have this bacteria for life. The bacteria will go to sleep, like la bella durmiente" — or Sleeping Beauty. Soon enough, she explains, the bacteria will wake up.
A few houses away, on the same street, 30-year-old Abigail Cruz worries about the health of her two sons. Her 9-year-old, William, has a lump under one of his breasts; a doctor recommended blood work. And a year ago, 3-year-old Joshua was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. The doctor told Abigail that it was unusual for a boy Joshua's age to get that sort of infection.
"We had his kidneys tested — everything was fine. Then a bladder test. They put a liquid into his bladder through the urethra. For me, as a mother, to watch that, it was horrible."
Joshua still complains that it hurts when he pees, but Abigail is reluctant to put him through more painful tests. As his mother talks, the little boy wanders into the living room in Batman undies. The Cruz trailer is bright and airy inside. A ceiling fan with blades in the shape of palm fronds whirs above a plush white couch, white tile, and a decorative white mantle. The Cruz family has lived in Palma Nova for seven years. They know not to drink the water from their tap, but they too still cook and bathe with it.
Cruz didn't connect the dots between Joshua's urinary pains and the water until she listened to Caroll Payan's story at the Davie Town Hall. Now Joshua, who loves to play in a full bathtub, gets showers. "Even when I bathe with it," Cruz says, "I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, am I bathing in feces?' "
The Cruz family is searching for an apartment to rent. They agreed to sell their trailer, at a $13,000 loss, to a family in Palma Nova whose own home is too old to move. This way, the Cruz family can avoid signing the settlement document that Palma Nova requires for homes to be transported out of the park. The settlement paper states that neither current residents nor their descendants will ever sue the owners of Palma Nova for anything related to their time living in the park.
In addition to the money the Formans are offering to those who sign the settlement document, the Florida Mobile Home Relocation Corporation, which helps displaced trailer park residents, is giving money to Palma Nova homeowners. They'll get $3,000 for a single and $6,000 for a doublewide. If they choose to abandon a trailer, the relocation corporation will give them $1,375 for a single and $2,750 for anything larger.