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Tornado Deaths Raise Questions About Mobile Home Safety

8:51 PM, Mar 11, 2012   |    comments
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By Andy Wolfson (The Louisville Courier-Journal ) - Near Paintsville, Ky., a double-wide mobile home was blown off its foundation and over a 25-foot embankment into a rushing creek, where it "just disintegrated," the county coroner said, killing two people, including a 16-year-old boy.

In Lawrence County, Ky., a woman and her 14-year-old granddaughter were crushed when their double-wide trailer was slammed against a nearby hill by winds reaching 140 mph. Related link: Jim Gandy on the Danger of Mobile Homes in Tornadoes

In Scott County, Ind., a man was killed when his mobile home was blown about 80 feet feet across a highway and into adjacent Clark County.

And in New Pekin, Ind., a family of five died after being blown out of their single-wide trailer by winds that left it flattened.

In fact, two-thirds of the 34 people killed in the catastrophic March 2 tornadoes in Kentucky and Indiana died in mobile homes - even though such housing makes up just 14% of the housing in Kentucky and 6% in Indiana.

Sixteen people in Kentucky and eight in Indiana died as their mobile homes were rolled, flipped, flattened or obliterated by twisters with winds that in some areas exceeded 175 mph.

Experts on severe weather say the disproportionate death toll in mobile and manufactured housing isn't surprising: The National Severe Storm Center has found that occupants of such dwellings, which are lighter and less well anchored, are 10 to 20 times more likely to be killed in tornadoes than those in conventional homes.

From 2006 to 2011, 31% of the 823 people killed in tornadoes in the United States died while in or fleeing from mobile homes, even though that housing accounts for only about 8% of the nation's residences, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The National Weather Service, the American Meteorological Society and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes all say mobiles homes are more vulnerable in tornadoes than conventional "stick" homes, and that residents in them are at risk even in a minor twister.

The Manufactured Housing Institute, an industry group, contends that newer mobile homes - built after 1976, when more stringent federal regulations went into effect - are as safe as conventional housing.

But The Courier-Journal's review of county property records shows that at least seven of the 14 mobiles homes in which fatalities occurred on March 2 were built after 1976.

The industry group's websites also contend that the "explanation for the reports of damage to manufactured homes from tornadoes is quite simple: manufactured housing is largely found in rural and suburban areas where tornadoes are most likely to occur."

But meteorologists say there is no evidence to support that.

"I would have to laugh at that statement," said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist at NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., who noted that the EF-5 tornado that killed 160 people in Joplin, Mo., last May struck the heart of the city.

Informed about the response of Carbin and other experts, Lois Starkey, the mobile home group's vice president for regulatory affairs, said in an interview that it would remove the claim from its website.

Meanwhile, neither Kentucky nor Indiana officials are yet considering any legislation to increase safety among mobile home residents in severe weather.

Jane Jankowski, press secretary for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, noted that Friday was the last day of the legislative session.

She also said that the March 2 tornadoes were so strong they destroyed school buildings and reduced conventional houses to dust, though she added, "We are always open to new ideas, where appropriate."

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's spokeswoman, Kerri Richardson, said the state has been too focused on responding to the disaster to focus on mobile-home safety.

New rules raise safety

Mobile homes are the housing of choice in many rural areas of Kentucky because they are so much cheaper than conventional homes.

According to the U.S. census, the average sales price of a new unit in 2010 was $62,800, compared with $272,900 for all homes.

And mobile home builders say new standards and technology have made them safer.

Betty Endicott, executive director of the Kentucky Manufactured Housing Institute, said she toured Johnson County after the March 2 storms and found that "a lot of our newer mobile homes fared better than brick homes beside it."

She also noted that state regulations already require new mobile homes - and newly moved mobile homes - to be installed by a certified inspector and to be tied down according to federal rules.

She acknowledged though, that many mobile homes have been sitting in place for 30 or 40 years and Kentucky may need to consider rules requiring that they be retrofitted with tie-down straps.

Following Hurricane Andrew, in which 97% of all manufactured homes Florida's Dade County were destroyed, compared with 11% of conventional homes, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1994 revised its construction standards for mobile homes and mandated that they withstand higher winds.

But the strictest wind rules applied only in Hurricane-prone coastal areas.

In Kentucky and Indiana, newly built mobile homes must withstand winds only up to 90 mph, far lower than those experienced in this month's tornadoes.

Authorities say mobile homes can be made safer with the addition of tie down straps.

After a tornado killed 20 people in a 2005 in a trailer park in Vanderburgh County, Ind., local government enacted an ordinance requiring eight straps on every unit.

It won a $315,000 FEMA grant that allowed about 700 of 3,000 mobile homes in the county to be retrofitted, said retired building commission Roger Layman.

Vanderburgh and Evansville officials asked Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to issue an executive order requiring stricter anchoring statewide, but their call was not heeded, Layman said. Jankowski confirmed that no statewide action was taken.

Shelters improve trailer safety

Safety and weather organizations recommend that mobile-home dwellers take refuge in storm shelters, and that trailer parks be required to provide them.

But only one state, Minnesota, mandates that, and none of the victims of the March 2 tornadoes in Kentucky or Indiana lived in a trailer park. Instead, they were stand-alone units on individual lots.

Ernst W. Kiesling, an engineering professor at Texas Tech University and executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, a testing organization, said mobile-home occupants can build family shelters starting at about $4,500.

He acknowledged that price puts them out of the reach of most people who live in mobile homes and concedes that is a high price to pay, given the long odds that a tornado will strike a particular location.

"What one is buying with a shelter is the peace of mind," he said. "It is like an insurance policy."

The National Weather Service and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control say there is no safe place in a mobile home during a tornado and that the best advice is to plan in advance where to go to take cover.

"There is no credible organization that would recommend taking shelter in a mobile home during a tornado," said Leslie Chapman-Henderson president Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based non-profit. "The question is where are you going to go."

 

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