By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Abigail Cruz has been advised by a lawyer to avoid signing anything. The lawyer met with a small group of Palma Nova residents a few weeks ago to discuss concerns about Ferncrest water. Cruz remembers the lawyer explaining that once residents take money from the Formans, it would be very difficult to sue.
"The release paper is very compromising," Cruz says. "It's creepy. I'm not going to give up my kids' rights. Hopefully, they're healthy and fine. But if anything happens because we drank the water, I'm going to need the money for the medical bills. This man, it's OK if he wants to sell the land. But to play with people's health? These things don't happen one day to another. If there have been problems with the water for so long, why is the company still open?"
Toni Crisante signed the settlement. And took the money. After weighing her options, she decided to pay $10,000 to transport her singlewide, 1981 home. She's moving it to a different Davie trailer park, Kings Manor, which gets its water from Sunrise. She's looking forward to living in what she thinks is a nicer community, where the family will once again be able to drink the water.
"When you drive into Palma Nova," Crisante says, "it's all manicured by the security gate. But after you go down the road, you start seeing the dump. People just don't take care of it. Some people have their yards all landscaped, and then next door you'll see ratty-ass cars and shit everywhere. If you drive around, you'll see the pigsty."
Each day, more trailers disappear from Palma Nova. More than a hundred have been transported out of the park. The empty lots look like patches of grass blasted open by mortar shells, except that the loose gray dirt forms a rectangular shape. Children sometimes explore the new terrain, stepping over open PVC pipes and exposed wiring.
The Crisante home got hauled off on a Monday. Before the Crisante family can settle back into it, the house must pass inspections and earn permits, which could take weeks. In the meantime, the family will share an efficiency hotel room.
Herbert O'Rourke, a 46-year-old unemployed welder who has lived in the park since he was a teenager, watches the Crisante trailer roll away. When the time is right, O'Rourke plans to abandon his own home — a singlewide that he and his father bought together for $3,000 in 1977. His father is dead, and the trailer is full of termites. It's not worth saving. A brother, O'Rourke says, is going to help lug his belongings to Mississippi, where he'll buy another trailer.
As he steps, barefoot, onto the plywood floors of his living room, O'Rourke warns that his house is a mess. O'Rourke is a pack rat with a penchant for miscellaneous objects. Family photos cover the walls. Ashes of dead pets and relatives rest in urns on a shelf. The Jerry Springer Show blares on his TV.
O'Rourke sees himself as a neighborhood watchdog. When he notices an open plumbing pipe after a home disconnects from the sewer system, he snaps a picture of the gray muck seeping out.
He also froze bottles of tap water five years ago, just in case regulators ever come calling. O'Rourke reaches into his fridge to retrieve his frozen water specimens, which he has stored in Nestea and Gatorade bottles. He has held onto the time capsules even though officials at the Public Service Commission told him they'd need to take the water samples straight from his faucet for the data to mean anything.
He holds the 5-year-old ice blocks up to the sunlight. O'Rourke says the streaks that look like yellow shards of glass are frozen filth. He blames the water for the lump under his left breast that feels like a Tootsie Roll suspended in Jell-O. He wonders whether Ferncrest water harmed his friends and neighbors in Palma Nova. "There has been a lot of people I've known in here that died of cancer, at least seven or eight. Bone, liver, and some other parts of their body."
Fishing rods lean against a wall. O'Rourke likes to fish off the beach piers. But he won't fish in any of the canals and lakes that surround Palma Nova. He has seen folks fishing there, though, over behind the Hess station on Davie Road. "And if they catch it, they're going to eat it. And then they'll get sick."
The public isn't supposed to have access to those lakes, by order of the Department of Environmental Protection. However, on a recent Thursday, a gate that separates Palm Trace Landings from the lakes is wide open. Two 9-year-olds, residents of the Palm Trace rental apartments, linger near the water's edge.
Today, the little girls are explorers. All sorts of gates are open, including the one leading into Ferncrest Utilities. They document their findings — a car seat, an iguana — on a small notepad in careful handwriting. The girls toss rocks into a large puddle covered with a shiny green film. Then they wander into the plant itself. A woman emerges from a nearby trailer home to shoo the kids away. "You can't go in there," she commands. "There are dangerous chemicals."