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Carl Hiaasen
In a hurricane, there’s no safe mobile home
Article published on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2004
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An open letter to the residents of Florida’s remaining 900,000 mobile homes and trailers:

By now, most of you know about the ruination caused by Hurricane Charley throughout Florida. Watching all the sad TV footage, you probably noticed the many heaps of corkscrewed metal that were once “manufactured housing” like your own.

For those of you still clinging to the illusion that you’re living in a safe structure, now’s the time to wise up. Forget what the salesman told you, because there’s no such thing as a safe mobile home.

Every one of them is future storm debris, temporarily at rest. Shrapnel-in-waiting.

Lots of you weren’t here for Hurricane Andrew, but you might be interested to know that it obliterated about 18,000 mobile homes across Florida and Louisiana – more than 8,000 in Miami-Dade County alone, a 97 percent loss.

Before Andrew, the city of Homestead, Fla., had 1,167 mobile homes. Only nine remained the day after.

As a result, new safety standards were imposed in 1994. Manufactured homes were to be built with heavier frames, stronger roof connections and more tie-down straps.

Installers in Florida were to be licensed, and occasionally the mobile homes would actually be inspected for safety – a radical concept indeed, considering the hefty campaign donations showered upon state legislators by trailer-industry lobbyists.

Most significantly, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered manufacturers to build the new structures sturdy enough to withstand sustained winds up to 100 mph at inland locations and 110 mph along the coast.

Naturally, the manufacturers sued (unsuccessfully) to have the new regulations nixed, claiming that the structural improvements would boost the price of mobile homes beyond the means of many potential buyers.

Making money, you understand, was always more important than saving lives and property.

Even the government got into the act. After Hurricane Andrew struck, FEMA brought 3,000 mobile homes and travel trailers into south Miami-Dade as temporary shelter for those left homeless.

Months later, as the disaster agency prepared to pull out, it figured out a way to save the cost of shipping the trailers and mobile homes back north: Sell them to the poor folks who were stuck in them.

The absurdity of peddling perilously flimsy housing to hurricane victims was not apparent to FEMA. It did, however, bother Tad DeMilly, then mayor of Homestead, who explained, “We have nothing against mobile homes; we just don’t want to perpetuate the nonsurvivable housing.”

The problem is, survivable housing also happens to be expensive, especially along the coasts. If it weren’t for mobile homes, thousands of working-class families couldn’t afford to live here, and thousands of retirees would have to retire somewhere else.

According to the 2000 Census, Florida has more mobile homes and trailers than any other state. Every hurricane season, upwards of 1.3 million optimists boldly bet everything on the chance that no killer gusts will come their way.

The industry insists that modern mobile homes are as safe in a hurricane as many site-built homes – which might be true, given the sorry level of code enforcement in many places.

Manufacturers will say they can’t be expected to build a mobile home that stands up to the force of a Category 4 tempest, but here’s a prediction:

When the meteorological studies of Hurricane Charley are completed, it will be shown that some, if not most, of Charlotte County’s mobile-home parks were flattened by winds substantially lower than the 145 mph figure so eagerly gobbled up by the media.

The same mistake occurred after Andrew, until a methodical study revealed that faulty construction and unstable housing were larger factors than wind speed in determining the pattern of destruction.

The truth is, for those living in mobile homes, every hurricane season is a test of nerves, and IQ.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Category 1 or a Category 5 storm pinwheeling across the Doppler radar. If it’s within a hundred miles of your trailer park, there’s only one sane and sensible choice: Pack up and run like hell.

And if, for some bizarre reason, you choose to hunker down in your mobile home and ride out the storm, be sure to write your name on a luggage tag and tie it to your big toe.

Carl Hiaasen can be reached by e-mail at HeraldEd@aol.com.
Article published on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2004
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