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Storms pass; danger remains

Recent tornadoes point out mobile homes' vulnerability. For some, upgrading is too costly.

By Times Staff and Wire Reports
Published February 9, 2007


LADY LAKE - It became clear as workers dug through rubble and collected the dead: All 20 victims of the tornadoes that tore through Central Florida last week lived in mobile homes.

Now some advocates are urging the state to spend more to strengthen such homes, especially older ones that are most vulnerable to fierce winds.

There are more than 100,000 mobile homes in west-central Florida, including about 47,000 in Pinellas County and about 30,000 in Hillsborough County. It's unknown how many of those homes meet the most modern building standards.

New regulations passed after Hurricane Andrew in 1994 and severe tornadoes in 1998 require that new mobile homes be built to endure severe weather.

But many older mobile homes - one estimate is 600,000 statewide - are not required to meet those standards.

Florida spent about $10-million last year to strengthen 3,800 older mobile homes, most of them built before 1976, when the federal government tightened building codes.

"Florida could spend twice that amount, and it still wouldn't be enough," said Jim Ayotte, executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association. "It's just a drop in the bucket."

It's not known how many of the 20 people killed in Central Florida lived in older homes that did not meet new standards.

Many residents of Tampa Bay area mobile homes have made an effort to upgrade, but the improvements can cost thousands of dollars, said Gladys Favata, president of the Resident-Owned Communities Forum in Pinellas.

"We also have people who are pinched for money and can't go through that expense," Favata said. "And that's why we wanted the state to help do some tie-downs."

Favata said her community, Fairway Village in Largo, sought money from the state to pay for tie-downs for older units. But the state turned it down.

Favata said her community has taken steps to educate residents about securing their homes, including putting information up on bulletin boards.

"It's not that the manufactured home communities have been ignorant about what's going on," she said.

Pinellas County emergency management director Gary Vickers said there used to be a state program that helped those folks, but "the program ran out of funding."

Sylvia Murphy, who lives in Colony Mobile Home Park in unincorporated Pinellas, said community members met Thursday to discuss hurricane preparedness. Tie-downs were one topic.

It's unclear, she said, how many owners in the Colony have them. Cost is a problem, she said. Colony residents plan to attend a mobile home expo Feb. 17 to see if the state offers any help.

But Murphy said she's not sure tie-downs would save anybody in the case of a tornado. "I don't think anybody's safe if there's a direct hit," Murphy said.

Stronger rules

Hurricane Andrew demolished mobile homes south of Miami in 1992, and the federal government two years later required newly built mobile homes to withstand winds of 90 mph, 100 mph or 110 mph, depending on their location. Mobile homes in Florida now must withstand winds of at least 100 mph inland and 110 mph winds in coastal counties.

Seven tornadoes killed 42 people in Florida in 1998, and regulators soon acted to strengthen installation and tie-down requirements for new mobile homes. Before 1999, mobile homes had to be tied down only on the two long sides; now all four sides must be secured.

After four hurricanes hit Florida in 2004, the state found that new mobile homes did not suffer the same catastrophic damage as older ones. More than 3,600 older mobile homes were destroyed, while none built to at least 1994 standards was seriously damaged.

The latest killer storms also showed the fragility of old homes. In Lady Lake, Doris and Albert Gantner's mobile home, built before the 1999 tie-down restrictions went into effect, was obliterated by a tornado.

Doris Gantner, 81, died and her husband, Albert, 89, suffered a concussion and broken collarbone and vertebrae, said his granddaughter, Sue Westerhoff.

Larry Tanner, an engineering researcher from Texas Tech University who is examining the damage from last week's storms, said he saw evidence that mobile homes fitted with the newest building standards fared much better than those that were not.

"The newer standards are working," Tanner told the Orlando Sentinel. "You can see definitely the difference in performance with the difference in construction in older structures."

But Tanner, whose university is one of the leading institutions in wind research, said he saw few mobile homes that met the most modern of standards.

'It saved my life'

Lake Mack resident Bill Barth said his life was saved by anchors and straps that kept his home in place when the storms hit.

"It saved my life, I'm 100 percent certain," Barth told the Sentinel. He said he felt his home pull away when the tornadoes came through. "We were floating. It was going, until it got caught by those straps."

Mobile homes built today can withstand the same winds as regular homes, said Kevin Grosskopf, a professor at the University of Florida's School of Building Construction. But the state needs to do more to make older homes safer, he said.

"I think that it's a rational conclusion that the state program to make mobile homes more durable is not being very effective," Grosskopf said.

Vickers, the Pinellas emergency management director, said he doesn't believe any mobile home is as safe as a traditional home during tornadoes.

"It would stand to reason that newer mobile homes built to newer codes are going to be more survivable than those built to the older code. But that's still not going to be as survivable as a traditional wood-frame or concrete-block home," he said.

Measures that can strengthen older mobile homes include replacing tie straps with galvanized steel straps and securing any attached structures.

But for many working-class people and retirees, older mobile homes have long been the only affordable option.

"I don't know what we're going to do for the older homes. I just don't know the answer to that," said state Rep. Hugh Gibson, a Republican who represents Lady Lake. "Where would they live?"

Vickers said mobile home residents should keep weather alert radios in their homes. He said sudden tornadoes can hit Pinellas County, as they did in 1992, when three people were killed and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

"Residents of mobile homes need to be aware - and I think they are - of severe weather," he said.

Times staff writer Chris Tisch contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press and Orlando Sentinel.

[Last modified February 9, 2007, 00:31:52]

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