Thoughts on Mobile Homes: A Problem with No Solution?

Yesterday and today an early-season severe weather outbreak occurred in the Central and Eastern U.S. The outbreak produced comparatively few tornadoes, but under the right conditions, it takes only one to do catastrophic damage—and that is exactly what happened when an EF4 struck the community of Lone Grove, Oklahoma.

EF4 and EF5 tornadoes are classified as “violent,” and they are known for flattening “fixed” buildings. The main difference is that EF4s blow houses down and EF5s blow them away. Obviously, in these tornadoes, survival above ground in ordinary buildings is not something that can be counted on. (Sometimes, in fact, survival in basements is not guaranteed, such as in the Parkersburg, IA EF5 tornado that struck in May of 2008. It ripped houses from their foundations and filled the exposed basements with debris.) But a mobile home is absolutely the worst place that one could be. It’s not any better than being in the open outdoors in EF3 and higher events. And, indeed, most of the fatalities associated with yesterday’s tornado occurred in a trailer park.

This is really no surprise. These structures are death traps in severe weather. Last year, 56 of 123 tornado-related deaths occurred in mobile homes.

It is quickly becoming the American way to blame victims for their own misfortunes, to attribute their losses to “stupidity” or some such. “What kind of person would live in a trailer in Tornado Alley?” That’s the type of question you sometimes hear. It’s not just callous; the line of thinking that provokes it is incorrect. I have yet to hear of any person living in a mobile home who has safer options immediately available to him or her. People live in these structures in the short term because their situation is unfixed; perhaps they are waiting on a house sale to go through or construction to complete; perhaps they know they are not going to live in that particular spot for long because of their job. And people live there in the long term because a mobile home is the best that they can afford. (Considering that ridiculous real estate practices have basically destroyed the U.S. economy, I think that those who know what their limits are and live within them should be applauded.) Contrary to the beliefs of those who try to blame mobile home residents for the weather-related troubles they often experience, they are not deliberately endangering themselves.

But endangering themselves they are. If they have no choice but to reside in these structures, what can be done to decrease the mobile home fatality rate for severe weather? People who have studied this problem far longer than I have no real solution for the problem of poor-quality lower-income housing. There have been pushes in the past for community shelters in mobile home parks, but some very valid logistical problems arise. These shelters could become hot spots for crime, for instance. They would cost money to maintain, and in the absence of maintenance they would become just as unsafe as the mobile homes in the community. They would need to be insured and the trailer park management would be legally liable for them. Pet policies are another potential source of contention; whose rights prevail, the pet owner’s or the allergy sufferer’s? (I fall into both groups and generally favor the right of people to keep their animals safe; allergic reactions to dander are a temporary concern. But this is hardly a universal opinion.) What about property rights? Certainly no one should be allowed to move large stuff into a shelter with them, preventing people from having space, but do they not also have the right to protect irreplaceable items?

Problems indeed—but an even bigger problem is that in some areas, particularly the Southeast, many—perhaps most—mobile home residents are not part of a managed community. They purchased their trailer and put it on a piece of property that they themselves own or rent. It’s a setup just like a constructed house, except with a trailer. If there is no community management to fund a shelter for these households, who pays for it? A federal law possibly could be passed to mandate shelters for mobile home communities, with the associated costs to be paid for by the fees associated with living in these communities. The construction cost would be spread over a group of people and it wouldn’t likely be a special hardship to anyone. The private household that lives in a mobile home is a different situation entirely. And problems compound, of course, if the family is renting the land from someone else.

I do know that if I lived in a trailer and had no good options for shelter in my immediate neighborhood, I would choose to drive away if a tornado had its sights set on me. I have, in fact, been in a similar situation once before. When I lived in Knoxville, TN, I was on the top floor of a low-rise apartment building. The complex was itself a death trap in a strong tornado; there were no interior hallways or even public interior rooms on the first floor, just a dogtrot-type open passage between private apartments. The closest thing the complex had to a public shelter was the laundry facility about a quarter of a mile away across a field of grass. When a tornado was reported to be in the Knoxville area, I was fully aware of my situation, and I quickly decided that if it looked like it would bull’s-eye my part of town, I would be heading due south on the roads. (The tornado dissipated before it reached the area, so I did not have to put this plan into action, fortunately.)

But would I recommend driving out of the tornado’s path to everyone? Absolutely not. Though I don’t have meteorological training, I am confident enough in my spotting abilities that I think I would be able to tell where the storm was going, and I’d be able to plot my own course based on that. Most people don’t make a hobby of studying severe weather. And, indeed, the path of a tornado is not the only thing one should account for while driving. Familiarity with the structure of a thunderstorm is very helpful, because otherwise one could drive into a barrage of windshield-busting hail or 80 mph straight-line winds. This is not “general knowledge” and I think it’s absurd to expect the average citizen to know all about supercell storms. “Tornado Alley” is, to be strictly correct, not just the Plains; it encompasses much of the Southeast and the Ohio Valley as well. Expecting the greater part of the Eastern U.S. population to know what storm spotters and storm chasers know is unreasonable.

I don’t know what the solution is to the mobile home fatality problem. Ideally, I’d like for the government to provide vouchers or significant tax write-offs for families that invest in a tornado shelter, but I seriously doubt that the voucher idea will come to pass in the current financial climate. The government couldn’t even run a $40 DTV voucher program without running out of money, let alone a $2000 one.

I do think that mobile home residents east of the Rockies should invest in a weather radio so that they can hear about nighttime events. These are cheap. However, I doubt that the deaths in Lone Grove yesterday were associated with a lack of awareness. The tornado did strike at night, but it was around 7:45, a time when most people are probably still awake. The shelter issue is the big one.

My recommendations are free and come with no guarantee of anything. I’m not even a professional structural engineer. I’m just an amateur who has studied severe weather and has had some personal experience with it. That said, the best advice I can offer mobile home residents who have no storm shelter is to pick a relatively sturdy public building in reasonable driving distance, such as a library, and make plans to head to it in bad weather. AVOID highway overpasses; it is a myth that they provide any safety at all, and indeed, people have died attempting to take “shelter” under them.

This does not address the issue of night events, when most such buildings would be closed. For that I can’t offer any solutions other than the old canard of “get out and head for a ditch.” That, however, might work. In the F5 tornado of May 3, 1999, some trailer residents survived a direct strike by getting inside a large culvert and blocking the entrance from debris. I still think it’s a risky gamble to take, but the odds must be better than they would be for staying inside a trailer.

I hope that someday the problem of low-income housing will be properly addressed. It’s disgusting to me that people should be expected to take chances on their lives by lying in a ditch—that this really is the best solution available to people who, for whatever reason, live in mobile homes. But until a real solution arrives, that seems to be how it is.