In a Tornado, Mobile Homes Are Deadly

The federal government needs to start subsidizing storm shelters for people living in mobile homes in rural areas.
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Damage from a tornado that killed at least 23 people in Beauregard, Alabama, pictured on March 4th, 2019.

Damage from a tornado that killed at least 23 people in Beauregard, Alabama, pictured on March 4th, 2019.

I remember from my childhood a cruel joke that went around my Alabama school: "How do you know God hates poor people? Because He sends tornadoes to trailer parks."

I know how it feels to be inside a trailer when a storm hits. When I was in third grade in 1973, the middle school in my hometown of Trussville, Alabama, burned to the ground. For the next two years, my classmates and I attended class in trailers on the playground of the elementary school while the middle school was being rebuilt. Our teachers did their best to make the trailers into classrooms, but these places were never comfortable—miserably hot in the fall and freezing cold in the winter.

And in the spring, during tornado season, they were terrifying.

One sunny spring day in fourth grade, the temperature plunged, and the sky turned a sickening shade of green. The wind whipped up and the trailers started to shake and shimmy. Then the walls began to rattle. The trailers had no basements or interior hallways where we could find refuge, so our only option was to evacuate. We took shelter in a hallway of the solid brick elementary school.

During our frequent tornado drills at school, we'd routinely practiced walking across the playground and into the school in neat, single-file lines. But that day, we ran. I'll always remember how exposed and vulnerable it felt to sprint across that playground. I'll always remember how relieved I was to make it inside and see solid brick around me.

I often wonder what would have happened to me—to all of us—if the elementary school hadn't been there and our only option had been to remain in those trailers during a tornado.

The answer is a grim one. Our chances of dying in a trailer would have been 15 to 20 times greater than in a site-built structure. That's why the federal government needs to start subsidizing storm shelters for people living in mobile homes in rural areas. Every state should enforce the Department of Housing and Urban Development standards for mobile home installation to make sure trailers are properly anchored. And the owners of mobile home parks should be required to build shelters for their residents. Currently, Minnesota is the only state with legislation on the books requiring storm shelters or evacuation plans in mobile home parks. It needs to be a federal-mandated national requirement.

Officials in Lee County, Alabama, recently asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to include the county in a federal grant program that would help its residents build storm shelters. After all, this is the county that experienced the deadliest American tornado in six years this March, when 23 people were killed in and around the small community of Beauregard. Of those 23 deaths, 19 happened inside mobile homes.

Because mobile homes have no foundation or basement, they are more easily destroyed in a tornado. They can be lifted up and turned over, thrown onto one another, ripped open and apart. Tornado survivors describe being tossed around rooms. And that danger increases when states fail to enforce building codes requiring owners to securely anchor their mobile homes to concrete slabs.

Given the vulnerability of people living in mobile homes, FEMA should help the residents of Lee County, and of other counties in tornado-prone regions, build these life-saving shelters.

As the calendar moves past one of the deadliest tornado seasons in years—beginning with the tornadoes that struck Lee County in early March and ending with an unprecedented 13-day streak of tornadoes in late May—the National Weather Service has compiled a preliminary report on killer tornadoes in the United States in 2019. Of the 38 deaths by tornado across the country this year, 26 happened inside mobile homes.

According to a recent study, 39 percent of Americans killed by tornadoes from 1985 to 2017 died in mobile homes. That's especially significant considering how few Americans—about 6 percent—lived in mobile homes during that period.

FEMA does offer subsidies for storm shelters to people who live in mobile homes through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. But the program is an after-the-fact response. Local governments and non-profit agencies apply for the grants on behalf of their communities after a disaster hits. If awarded, qualifying residents are reimbursed for 75 percent of the cost of a storm shelter. But to qualify, residents must meet an onerous standard: In Lee County, for example, Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Lee Smith explained the subsidies "will be for those who lost family, who lost lives, people who lost their homes in the tornadoes."

FEMA does have a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, but the agency does not award grants to individual residents. As a result, people who live in mobile homes in rural areas have to rely on their county governments to develop a mitigation plan and apply for funds on their behalf. In Alabama, that means relying on the same government that has been lax about enforcing those building codes for mobile homes. Too often, local governments lack the resources, or the will, to ensure proper implementation of such plans.

And if you're living in a trailer and don't want to be at the mercy of local government, building your own storm shelter isn't cheap. Estimates range from $3,000 to $8,000, depending on the size of the structure. That's why so few low-income people have them. But imagine how many lives would be saved if they did. The people of Lee County were given 12 minutes' warning before tornadoes hit in March. A safe place to hide might have made all the difference for those who perished.

Perhaps there are those in America who don't really care about people who live in trailers, and feel, because these people can't afford a basement, that they deserve what they get. The weather doesn't discriminate between rich and poor. But we, as a society, too often do. Too many of us dehumanize the poor. Some of us even call people who live in mobile homes "trailer trash." Behaving in this way allows us not to care very much when our neighbors in mobile homes die in easily preventable ways. As the climate crisis continues, natural disasters will continue to exacerbate the divide between rich and poor. We must stop neglecting our low-income communities and give them shelter from the growing storm.

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