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Weekend Storms and Subsequent Deaths Cause Officials to Renew Focus on Mobile Home Safety

Source: WSJ - Jennifer Levitz

Posted on 20 Apr 2011

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In aftermath of last week's outbreak of tornadoes in the southern U.S and the subsequent devastation to mobile home residents, lawmakers and emergency-management officials have been prompted to renew their focus on the issue of these structures' safety during storms.

"Certainly, the tragic events of the weekend have served as yet another reminder of the importance of both early warnings and the close proximity of secure storm shelters for people who live in manufactured housing," said Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, where seven deaths from the storms all occurred in mobile homes.

Authorities were still assessing the devastation from the string of tornadoes that swept from Oklahoma to Virginia between Thursday and Saturday. But more of the estimated 45 deaths appear to have happened in mobile homes than in other structures, vehicles or outside, according to preliminary data from the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

Mobile homes are lighter than typical structures and often aren't permanently moored to the ground. They typically don't have basements or interior rooms where residents can hunker down in a storm.

For those reasons, safety officials say mobile-home residents should leave their homes and seek shelter in a permanent building, storm shelter or even a ditch when tornadoes threaten.

But officials say many residents don't leave, possibly because they haven't had sufficient warning, don't know where to go, or have become complacent in parts of the country where storm alerts are common.

In 2010, according to the weather service, 45 people died in tornadoes: 20 were in mobile homes; 11 in houses; seven in vehicles; six were outside; and one was in a building.

Efforts to pass laws to require weather radios or storm shelters near mobile-home parks often have died in the face of opposition from the mobile-home industry and concerns about driving up the cost of an affordable housing option for many lower-income people.

Deanna Fields, executive director of the Manufactured Housing Association of Oklahoma, which opposed legislation there, said storm shelters are costly and also impose a liability that drives up insurance costs.

Mr. Bachus twice sponsored legislation, in 2007 and 2009, that would have required weather radios in new manufactured housing. The legislation passed the House but no action was taken in the Senate. Mr. Bachus didn't say Tuesday whether the legislation would be refiled but said there was now "heightened awareness" of the issue.

The Manufactured Housing Institute supported Mr. Bachus's legislation, but only if it was extended to all dwellings.

Arkansas will likely examine whether more can be done to prepare mobile-home residents for tornadoes, said Tommy Jackson, spokesman for Arkansas's state emergency-management department. Four of the state's seven deaths were in mobile homes.

In Oklahoma, two pieces of legislation that would have required mobile-home parks to have storm shelters and an evacuation plan died last year.