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.
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.