ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
This month, two years after Hurricane Katrina, we're telling you stories about people, about survival and well, something short of that. The Annuals of Emergency Medicine recently published a study - a FEMA park set up after Katrina and the findings about mental health are disturbing. Suicide attempts are roughly 79 times higher than average for the region. Depression: seven times the national average.
Reporter Alix Spiegel visited one of the parks in the study, a small FEMA park called Scenic Trails, very deep in the Mississippi forest, 30 minutes from the closest town. That's where 100 families have lived for close to two years.
ALIX SPIEGEL: I met Billy Snow(ph) the morning I left, a large man sitting on his trailer porch in a heavy metal wheelchair. He was surrounded on all sides by the bright green webbing he uses to make fishing nets.
Mr. BILLY SNOW: These are what you call a drop net. You drop the net down, people crabbed with it. I've been doing this since my daddy died in '75.
SPIEGEL: When you first came here, how long did you think you would stay?
Mr. SNOW: I figured about maybe five or six months. I figured, me, knowing myself I'd figure a way to get out of this situation. I won't give up.
SPIEGEL: Snow has some contract to sell the nets to stores, but he works 14 hours a day. He says he's only made $2,000 in the last three months. Still, it's at least a steady work, and his wife, Linda(ph), says their neighbors have become to resent their good fortune.
Ms. LINDA SNOW: And they think we are rich. He is not rich. I mean, we live on barely, you know. Like the others, we want to get out of there badly.
SPIEGEL: But getting in the Scenic Trails is no easy matter. For less than a thousand dollars a month, they'll make you king inside the park. It doesn't go far in the outside world.
Mr. SNOW: We looked at apartment that day, $750 a month. Plus you had to pay $500 deposit. I can't afford that. I'm looking two years for this business before I even see daylight out of it.
Ms. SNOW: And I don't care if I have to live in a box. I'm not staying here two years. You can go nuts out here.
SPIEGEL: Scenic Trails is isolated, an old commercial camp ground chosen by FEMA because it already had trailer hookups. The site in Southern Mississippi is 30 minutes by car from the closest town, the kind of place where cell phones falter. Even Billy Snow, who apparently used to enjoy the outdoors, says the isolation of the park has worn him down.
Mr. SNOW: I used to laugh a lot. You know, joke around. But I really don't have nothing to laugh about living in a place like this.
SPIEGEL: One issue for Snow is his trailer. Since moving his leg in a work accident years ago, Snow has been forced to use a wheelchair, but it's too big to sit in his trailer.
Mr. SNOW: When I want to go inside, I got to leave my wheelchair on the porch and I got to crawl inside, you know. I think no man should have to crawl around.
SPIEGEL: But really, being forced through crawl to his own home is the least of Snow's problems. You see, over the last two years, Scenic Trails has been overwhelmed by crimes so intense that the sheriffs' office is forced to answer calls six to 10 times a week. There's meth addiction, coke addiction, and almost everyone at the camp has been burglarized at least once. Even trailer power cords are stolen and stripped for copper, which is why, Linda Snow says, she finds it so hard to sleep through the night.
Ms. SNOW: I can't sleep. I have to listen if anybody comes close to the trailer or to the truck. Somebody might break in or hurt the dog in here.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean hurt the dog?
Mr. SNOW: They got somebody feed antifreeze to pets around here.
SPIEGEL: They've been feeding antifreeze to the pets?
Mr. SNOW: Yeah.
Ms. SNOW: Sounds crazy. People around here, they're doing that to animals.
SPIEGEL: I actually heard this charge from a number of people.
Ms. CYNTHIA BOBINGER(ph): Somebody was crawling off to murder my dog.
SPIEGEL: This is Cynthia Bobinger, a small woman with a wandering eye, who after introducing her self, calmly explained that the family dog has been killed three days before.
Ms. BOBINGER: They give him antifreeze and killed him. I buried him in my yard up there. We got him buried up there with the blue cross.
SPIEGEL: Another resident complained that her cat had come home maimed, a razor cut across his leg. And then there was her neighbor, Mr. Smith.
Mr. SMITH: My dog got a slashed with a knife or something. People go there killing people's dog for no reason.
SPIEGEL: No one seemed to have a theory about who was responsible, why. That was just the way things went at the camp nowadays. People were angry and frustrated and so they acted out - on the animals, on each other, on themselves. Shortly after talking to the Snows, I met a man named Tim Seapeck(ph) walking the road between some trailers. He was tall, capable-looking. I ask if we could talk and he agreed. So I started with what I thought was a casual question.
SPIEGEL: What it is like to live around here?
Mr. TIM SEAPECK: Honestly? Any day go by, I don't think about like often myself because it ain't worth living out here.
SPIEGEL: For real?
Mr. SEAPECK: For real. It's sucks out here.
SPIEGEL: Before Katrina, Seapeck built forklifts, but after FEMA moved him out to Scenic Trails, his car broke down and left him without transportation. This meant he had nothing to do all day but sit in his trailer, visit the mailroom and think about killing himself.
Had you ever thought of that before?
Mr. SEAPECK: No.
SPIEGEL: And when you think about that, what do you think about?
Mr. SEAPECK: Ways to do it. I know plenty of ways. It's just the least painful one, probably.
SPIEGEL: Do you have a family?
Mr. SEAPECK: Yeah. I have a child.
(Soundbite of children playing)
SPIEGEL: A couple of seconds later, Seapeck walked away and I wandered down the lane, passed a group of children playing to another trailer, where a woman name Stephanie Figore(ph) sat at a picnic table with her daughter on her lap. I introduced myself, sat down, and roughly three minutes later find myself in the exact, same conversation.
Ms. STEPHANIE FIGORE: If that wasn't a sin, I would have done it.
Unidentified Child: (unintelligible)
Ms. FIGORE: Committed suicide, all the time, though, I know it's a bad thing to say because I'm a parent, but I can't live like this no more.
SPIEGEL: Figore lives in a small trailer with her husband and four and six-year-old daughters. She told me that a couple of months ago, she became so unhappy with her life in Scenic Trails that she covered the windows of her trailer and in tin foil and refused to leave her bedroom for close to two weeks. It was her daughters, she says, who brought her back.
Ms. FIGORE: They've had already so much taken away from them, you know, and they don't need to see the parent break down like that. So I went to a doctor and he put me on some antidepressant.
SPIEGEL: And did they help?
Ms. FIGORE: No.
SPIEGEL: Figore is careful to point out that it's not that her family isn't trying. Her husband has a job, a good job in New Orleans.
Ms. FIGORE: He is driving almost an hour and a half to go to work everyday, you know. And he does side work constantly. We never see him. But it's like you can never get on top of anything.
SPIEGEL: Stephanie herself got a job as soon as she got to the camp. But between paying for gas and childcare, she ended up making less than what she spent, and so Stephanie quit.
Ms. FIGORE: The only reason I want to work was to help get my family out of here but I couldn't even do that, you know. So now, I'm a stay-at-home mom and we try to get out of here.
SPIEGEL: Two streets down, I knocked on a new trailer door, thinking incorrectly, that it belong to someone I'd met. Behind the screen there was a woman, thin and attractive with dyed red hair. So I asked her if she wanted to talk about how Katrina had affected her. And by the time her door slammed shut and she walked down the trailer steps, she was already crying.
Ms. KIM PINISCHERO(ph): This is what came after Katrina everyday. See, we're dying in here. We're dying in here.
SPIEGEL: This devastated woman, Kim Pinischero, apparently ran a pre-school out of her home and drove a school bus before Katrina. But it is frankly hard to conjure that image of her now. To see a competent professional, beneath the collection of ticks and outburst. Her conversation runs in circles then veers in unpredictable directions. But my stay is focused on the early days after the storm. Stories of surviving with her young son for days without food, stories so haunting to Pinischer that she whispers them, eyes wide as if talking to herself.
Ms. PINISCHERO: Three weeks after the storm came, we were halfway visiting to Ann Arbor(ph) on 603. And we were bathing in that beach. We were bathing in beach. We're all like African women, I mean, we took our kids, we took our clothes, and men where there, too. Oh God, Lord.
SPIEGEL: Like a lot of the people at the camp, even before Katrina, Pinichero's life had begun to decline. Two years before the storm, her husband ran into trouble with the law then died of a blood clot. Pinischero lost her home. Then Katrina totaled her rented apartment. But it wasn't until she got to Scenic Trails that she really began to fall apart. After moving in, she got involved in drugs, was arrested for crack. Things got worse and worse, until one day, about four months ago, when she turned to her 11-year-old son and announced that she was leaving him, to go kill her self.
Ms. PINISCHERO: I picked up the gun and said, I got to get out of here. If you need anything, go next door. And I got in the car and I locked it. I said up in that little country road at right up the street for about an hour and a half. And you know, with the claws(ph) the cows, a couple of friendly (unintelligible) these people pastures. And, you know, it's stupid because you know you're not going anywhere and you don't want to die. And you want to make your life better. And everyday, you go, come on God, stop, you know. Just come on, take me quick. I can't handle this.
SPIEGEL: It was shortly after that incident that the state took her son away. She went into counseling, but didn't regain custody of her child. She does however have a boyfriend. A man she met after Katrina who's trying to convince her to leave Scenic Trails.
Ms. PINISCHERO: So he says leave. And I don't want to because I'm scared. I'm just scared. I don't know, just, you know, I'm ready for life just to slow down. So I sit here where it's quiet, and I can lock the door. Nobody can get to me.
Mr. THOMAS PAGE(ph): She's so distraught. She don't know what to do.
SPIEGEL: This is Thomas Page, Pinischero's boyfriend. Pinischero and Paige met immediately after the storm. And according to Paige, moved temporarily to a town in central Mississippi called Rolling Fork. It was there he says that he really fell in love.
Mr. PAIGE: We're in Rolling Fork and I saw the woman doing really good. She was just a totally different person because she was away from everything. She was in a whole new place and she was just doing great. She have anxiety attacks and stuff and I knew that was from the storm.
SPIEGEL: Pinischero convinced Page to move closer to her old town. So they moved to Scenic Trails, but it was a bad move. Mentally, Pinischero just seem to disintegrate.
Mr. PAIGE: It's been a long hard road with her. And I'm trying to get her out of this area, but I don't know if it's going to be enough. I don't know what the hell to do. I'm getting cursed. I'm getting hit.
SPIEGEL: Is that thing on the side of your head - is that from her?
Mr. PAGE: Yup. I let her take her anger out on me right now. She can hit me and I'll stand there and take it. But it can only last so long.
SPIEGEL: If it weren't for Pinischero, Page says, he'd be at work. He works at an oilrig. But he's taken six weeks off to convince her to move from this horrible place he feels is poisoning her. His fear, he tells me, is that if he doesn't move her, Pinischero will deteriorate further and their relationship won't survive.
Mr. PAGE: That's why I go to get her out of the town. I'd got to get her out of the town this week because I got to get back to work. If I have to go back to work, get back on that boat, no one thinks that I know what's going on, I don't - I will no be able to do it. I cannot do it. I love this woman. I know she's a good woman, I know she is. I saw her in a totally different life when she was away from this town. And I know she's a good woman and I want to try to help her.
(Soundbite of crying)
Mr. PAIGE: And I got to get back to work. And I don't want to drive off and leave her.
SPIEGEL: On my way out of Scenic Trails, a disheveled man came up to my car window and knocked. I had met the man earlier. In fact, his trailer was the first I had visited. At 10 in the morning, he had opened his door, clearly high on something, a tall pile of garbage visible on the floor behind him. Because I'd met him before, I rolled down the window. And he reached into the car and passed me a box of apricots. He said he wanted to give these to me. He told me, take these to the outside world. I placed them on the seat beside my recording equipment and drove away.
NORRIS: Coming up, in part two of Alix Spiegel story, why so many people in the parks are still struggling. That's next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.