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Mobile homes a 'time bomb' in a storm

Older homes are at the greatest risk during hurricanes, experts say.

By JODIE TILLMAN and PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writers
Published July 30, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - In Riverbend Mobile Home Park, a leafy neighborhood with sand-colored street signs, resident Miriam Brewer leads a contented life.

She has a quick drive to the stores, inexpensive rent for her lot, more space than a little apartment affords and a decade of memories spent there with her late husband.

But every summer reminds Brewer, 80, that her contentment comes with risks: Hurricanes can devastate mobile homes, particularly older ones like hers.

"I'll stay until they tell me to go," said Brewer, whose mobile home is about 35 years old. "I'm not going to jeopardize myself."

With the busiest part of hurricane season fast approaching, emergency management officials and other experts are once again pointing to the vulnerability of mobile homes.

Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, calls mobile homes "one of the true ticking time bombs."

Officials and experts say the older mobile homes - those built before the 1994 federal building codes designed to make them more wind-resistant - pose a huge risk of catastrophic damage.

Mandating that owners get newer units isn't feasible because many can't afford it.

"It's a form of housing that was planned to be obsolete, but they continue to be used beyond that point," said Trent Green, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of South Florida. "A lot of low-income families find it's the only way to keep a roof over their heads."

Joan Greathouse, manager of the Tropic Breeze mobile home and RV park in Port Richey, where nearly all of the units are older homes, said, "This is a fixed-income park, and they can't afford to go anywhere else."

The mobile home industry is quick to highlight the differences between the older homes and the newer ones.

"We really need to segregate the industry," said Jim Ayotte, executive director of the Florida Manufactured Home Association.

"Older homes have a bad rap. Is it deserved? Yeah. Past history is evidence of that. But there was not one catastrophic failure of a new manufactured home" from the hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

So what's next? When storms are approaching, the biggest emphasis, as usual, is on evacuation. In Pasco County, mobile home residents are among the first people who face evacuation orders, regardless of where they live.

The state has made efforts to retrofit mobile homes to make them safer, but there are limits to that as well. Since passing a law in 1999 to tie mobile homes more securely to the ground, the state has spent about $2-million on retrofitting them. But it won't do the work on the oldest homes.

"We wouldn't do pre-1976 homes because it's not worth the effort," said Jerry Schilling, who administers the state's tie-down program through Tallahassee Community College. "There's got to be some insurable value."

The state's My Safe Florida Home program allotted $7.5-million last year for tie-downs on mobile homes and for retrofits to add-on structures like carports. This year, the Legislature budgeted another $15-million for that mitigation, but Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that allocation.

A version of this story appears in some regional editions of the Times.

[Last modified July 30, 2007, 00:37:39]

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