SAVANNAH, Ga. — Ten of at least 20 people killed in a weekend tornado outbreak lived in Georgia mobile home parks, yet laws requiring storm shelters in those vulnerable communities are few and far between.
Experts have long warned that mobile home dwellers face a higher risk of death when tornadoes strike but said many trailer park owners don’t want to make the costly investment in storm shelters and the sentiment for safety wanes in the weeks after a disaster.
According to the National Weather Service, 44 percent of the 1,091 Americans killed by tornadoes from 1985 to 2005 died in mobile homes, compared to 25 percent in stick-built homes. That’s especially significant considering how few Americans — 8 percent or fewer — lived in mobile homes during that period.
Over the weekend, an unusual midwinter outbreak of dozens of tornadoes shredded two mobile home parks that didn’t have shelters in southwest Georgia. Three people were killed at Big Pine Estates in Albany and seven died at Sunrise Acres in rural Cook County.
For most of the U.S., installing storm shelters remains a voluntary decision whether they’re for a private home, a mobile home park or a community center. Alabama and Illinois have laws mandating that new public schools are built with storm shelters, and Minnesota requires shelters at mobile home parks with spaces for 10 or more homes built since 1988. The city of Wichita, Kansas, has a similar ordinance for parks built since 1994.
“There have been other efforts to attempt that, but the mobile home industry and mobile home park owners have put up a lot of resistance to it,” namely citing high costs, said Laura Myers, who studies tornado disasters and responses as executive director of the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama.
A tornado nearly six years ago demolished homes and churches just up the road from the Mountain View Estates mobile home park in northwest Georgia. The close call frightened owner David Roden into taking action.
“We knew that if we had taken a direct hit at our manufactured home park that not all our residents would be alive,” Roden said. “When the weather man comes on TV, he says ‘if you live in a mobile home, get out now!’ Well, we didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Roden said he spent a six-figure sum — he won’t say exactly how much — on a shelter made of solid steel and equipped with a restroom and a generator. He figures it could hold up to 200 people at his park in Rossville.
Myers said there usually aren’t a lot of options for mobile home dwellers.
“They need to be taken to a shelter during a tornado watch rather than a warning. And sometimes the best they can do is try to get to a strong structure such as a Wal-Mart or a church,” she said.
Patricia Boerger, spokeswoman for the Manufactured Housing Institute that represents mobile home manufactures, said in an email that mobile homes destroyed by storms often are older models built in the 1970s.
“The reality is that there is no safe above ground structure in a tornado’s path — this includes all buildings and homes, regardless of how they are built,” Boerger said.
Often, any actions to make storm shelters more widely available occur in the immediate aftermath of a deadly disaster.
Alabama lawmakers made shelters mandatory for new schools after a 2007 tornado killed eight students at a high school in Enterprise. After an April 2011 tornado outbreak killed in excess of 300 people across the South, with more than 230 of them in Alabama, hard-hit communities such as Tuscaloosa invested in community shelters that resemble submarines sunk into the ground, Myers said.
Tornado disasters such as the May 20, 2013, twister that killed 24 and destroyed 1,100 homes in Moore, Oklahoma, also often spur private homeowners to build underground shelters or ground-level “safe rooms.” Those typically run anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000, said Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association.
“But that interest and consciousness subsides rapidly after the event,” Kiesling said. “It’s a real problem.”
Martin reported from Atlanta.