They are refugees from the DDT wars, these families encamped in a Torrance hotel since April, while backhoes and cleanup crews occupy their neighborhood.
Day after day, they have heard of strange discoveries along their street, of white chunks of DDT being unearthed in two back yards--chunks as large as golf balls, tennis balls, then bowling balls.
They wonder when, if ever, their lives will be normal again.
"I have to have control of my life," Dunia Ponce said Friday. "And I have lost control, totally."
Ponce, 33, like many of her neighbors, has been living in a suite in the Marriott Residence Inn in Torrance since April 26.
The residents of the small neighborhood just east of Torrance began fearing it would be unsafe to return to their homes next week as scheduled. Many expressed relief when federal officials announced Thursday that the families can remain in temporary housing for up to six months while the DDT contamination is studied further.
Still, they feel like hostages of the ever-spreading investigation and cleanup that has sent 90 people to hotels at federal expense.
Ponce wistfully described the two-bedroom home on West 204th Street that she bought three years ago, the remodeled bathroom, the new driveway, and the tomatoes, squash and roses in the garden. She told how she learned that federal testing had turned up DDT-laced soil across the street. The source of the contamination is still unknown.
"I bought my house, and I bought it in a waste dump," Ponce said bitterly. She thinks the DDT contamination is so severe that residents should be relocated permanently.
Some are heartened by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's comments Thursday that it would study the possibility of a permanent move.
But EPA officials hastened to add that such a step may be unnecessary--and certainly unusual. Only once has the agency's four-state regional office permanently relocated neighbors of a Superfund site, they said.
Residents of the working-class block of West 204th originally were to be relocated for only two weeks. But workers found buried white clumps containing about 760,000 parts per million of the banned pesticide. The maximum safe level is considered to be about 100 p.p.m.
The clumps were scattered in fill dirt that went as deep as seven feet in one yard. While the EPA originally had planned to remove 500 cubic yards of tainted soil, it by now has carted away about 2,000 cubic yards.
The EPA plans extensive testing to determine how far the fill material extends and whether houses are sitting on top of it. The agency also is attempting to determine the source of the fill.
Although the street is near a former DDT manufacturing plant that is now a federal Superfund site, the EPA does not know if the buried DDT came from that plant.
Families can return home if they wish during the investigation, but they have been cautioned not to garden or to allow children to play in soil in their yards.
"I want to go home as soon as I can," said Rosie Soto, 21, who complained that she is bored with hotel life and that her 9-month-old son misses his familiar crib.
Others acknowledge the frustrations of living out of a suitcase, of chauffeuring children across town to school, and of visiting their empty houses daily to water plants and collect the mail. But most say they will stay away from West 204th as long as they can.
Said resident Robin Hatch: "I don't call my house a home anymore. It's called the pits."