Stuck and Suicidal in a Post-Katrina Trailer Park
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
A few days ago, we got word that our colleague, Alix Spiegel, received the Scripps-Howard Foundation's National Journalism Award for her reporting on Hurricane Katrina victims housed in trailer parks. The Annals of Emergency Medicine published a study that said suicide attempts for the displaced people in these parks are roughly 79 times higher than average for the region; depression, seven times the national average.
Last year, Alix visited one of the parks in the study, a small FEMA park called Scenic Trails, deep in the Mississippi forest, 30 minutes from the closest town. That's where 100 families lived for close to two years. Here's some of Alix' story, which originally aired in August, 2007.
ALIX SPIEGEL, reporting:
I met Billy Snow(ph) the morning I arrived, 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 (Resident, Scenic Trails, Mississippi): These are what you call a drop net. You drop the net down, people grab 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 about 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 a small contract to sell the net to stores. Though he worked 14 hours a day, he says he's only made $2,000 in the last three months. Still, it's at least steady work, and his wife, Linda(ph), says their neighbors have begun to resent their good fortune.
Ms.�LINDA SNOW (Wife of Mr.�Billy Snow): They think we are rich. He's not rich. I mean, we have a (unintelligible) barely. You know, we want to get out of here badly.
SPIEGEL: But getting out of Scenic Trails is no easy matter. While less than $1,000 a month may make you a king inside the park, it doesn't go far in the outside world.
Mr.�SNOW: We looked at an apartment the other day, $750 a month, plus you had to pay a $500 deposit. I can't afford that. I'm looking two years for this business before I ever see daylight out of it.
Ms.�SNOW: 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 campground 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 dont have nothing to laugh about living in a place like this.
SPIEGEL: One issue for Snow is his trailer. Since losing his leg in a work accident years ago, Snow has been forced to use a wheelchair, but it's too big to fit in his trailer.
Mr.�SNOW: When I want to go inside, I've got leave my wheelchair on the porch, and I've got to crawl inside. You know, I think no man should have to crawl around.
SPIEGEL: But really, being forced to crawl through his own home is the least of Snow's problems. You see over the last two years, Scenic Trails has been overwhelmed by crime so intense that the sheriff's office is forced to answer calls at 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 and that.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean hurt the dog?
Mr.�SNOW: They've got somebody feeding antifreeze to pets around here.
SPIEGEL: They've been feeding antifreeze to the pets?
Ms.�SNOW: Sound crazy? People around here, they're going after animals.
SPIEGEL: I actually heard this charge from a number of people.
Ms.�CYNTHIA BOBBINGER(ph) (Resident, Scenic Trails, Mississippi): Somebody was cruel enough to murder my dog.
SPIEGEL: This is Cynthia Bobbinger, a small woman with a wandering eye who, after introducing herself, calmly explained that the family dog had been killed three days before.
Ms.�BOBBINGER: They gave him antifreeze and killed him. I buried him in my yard up there. I've got him buried up there with a blue cross.
SPIEGEL: Another resident complained that her cat had come home maimed, a razor-cut across his leg, and then there was their neighbor, Mr.�Smith(ph).
Mr.�SMITH (Resident, Scenic Trails, Mississippi): My dog got slashed with a knife or something. People are out there killing people's dogs 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 Sepec(ph) walking the road between some trailers. He was tall, capable-looking. I asked if we could talk, and he agreed. So I started with what I thought was a casual question.
What is it like to live around here?
Mr.�TIM SEPEC (Resident, Scenic Trails, Mississippi): Honestly? Ain't a day go by I don't think about, like, offing myself because it ain't worth living out here.
SPIEGEL: For real?
Mr.�SEPEC: For real. It sucks out here.
SPIEGEL: Before Katrina, Sepec 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 mail room and think about killing himself.
Had you ever thought about that before?
SPIEGEL: And when you think about that, what do you think about?
Mr.�SEPEC: Ways to do it. I know plenty of ways, it's just the least-painful one, probably.
SPIEGEL: Do you have a family?
Mr.�SEPEC: Yeah. I have a child.
(Soundbite of children playing)
SPIEGEL: A couple seconds later, Sepec walked away, and I wandered down the lane, past a group of children playing, to another trailer, where a woman named Stephanie Sigger(ph) sat at a picnic table with her daughter on her lap. I introduced myself, sat down, and roughly three minutes later, found myself in the exact same conversation.
Ms.�STEPHANIE SIGGER (Resident, Scenic Trails, Mississippi): If it wasn't a sin, I would've done committed suicide a long time ago. I know it's a bad thing to say because I'm a parent, but I can't live like this no more.
SPIEGEL: Sigger lives in a small trailer with her husband and four- and six-year-old daughters. She tells me that a couple months ago, she became so unhappy with her life in Scenic Trails that she covered the windows of her trailer in tinfoil and refused to leave her bedroom for close to two weeks. It was her daughters, she says, who brought her back.
Ms. SIGGER: Theyve always had so much taken away from them, you know, and they dont need to see the parent break down like that. So I went to the doctor and he put me on some anti-depressants.
SPIEGEL: And did they help?
Sigger is careful to point out that its not that her family isnt trying her husband has a job, a good job in New Orleans.
Ms. SIGGER: He has to drive almost an hour and a half to go to work every day, you know. And he does side work constantly. We never see him. But its 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. SIGGER: The only reason I went to work was to get my family out of here, but, I couldnt even do that. You know. So, now Im a stay-at-home mom and we try and get out of here.
MARTIN: Thats NPRs Alix Spiegel reporting
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.