Lawmaker seeks to protect mobile home residents from twisters

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The Omaha World Herald (Omaha, NE)

By:  Joe Duggan

October 9, 2012

 

LINCOLN -- Steve Renker knows mobile homes are popular punch lines for comedians and country singers.

 

Even though he lives in one, he couldn't resist when asked about trailers and tornadoes.

 

"These things got a big target on them," the retired railroad worker said with a smile. "I don't know if God is mad at us or what."

Renker and hundreds of other residents of Woodlawn Estates Mobile Home Park in northwest Lincoln once could find protection from the weather's wrath at a nearby animal vaccine plant. But the Pfizer plant discontinued opening its breakroom as a storm shelter because the company no longer wanted to accept the potential liability, Lancaster County emergency officials said.

 

Now the state senator whose district includes several of Lincoln's largest mobile home parks wants to see if a legislative solution can be found. A law could exempt companies of liability when they are doing a good deed, for example. Or perhaps require mobile home parks to provide group storm shelters on site.

 

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm will host a public meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at West Lincoln Elementary School to gather ideas. But Haar said he would introduce a bill to address the issue in the coming session, if he is re-elected in November.

 

"The sirens go off, and a lot of people don't know what to do," he said. "I had one woman with three daughters who said they all get in a closet. That's not a solution."

 

Research has shown that the manufactured homes provide precious little protection when hit.

 

From 2001 to 2010, a total of 286 of 564 Americans killed by tornadoes were in mobile homes. That represents 51 percent of tornado fatalities, even though trailers make up just 7 percent of the nation's residences. In comparison, a third of the deaths occurred in permanent homes, while the remaining 16 percent of victims were "elsewhere."

 

Mobile home residents are 15 times more likely to be killed by tornadoes than permanent home residents, said Harold Brooks, research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla. Brooks first investigated mobile home mortality and tornadoes in 2001 and has updated the data every year since then.

 

"Mobile home residents need to be more ready to respond to tornado warnings," Brooks said.

 

But where can they go?

 

Probably the best solution would be to build a centrally located "safe room" in each mobile home community, said Doug Ahlberg, emergency management director for the City of Lincoln and Lancaster County.

 

Ahlberg distinguished a safe room from a storm shelter by explaining that a safe room is designed to hold occupants only during an emergency. Shelters can provide temporary living quarters and food for longer periods of time.

 

Ahlberg said the Federal Emergency Management Agency issues grants that cover 75 percent of the cost of building safe rooms. About six months ago, he submitted applications to FEMA to build safe rooms at Lincoln's eight major mobile home parks.

 

Even if the applications win approval, it doesn't mean the safe rooms will be built, he said. He estimated that the local match would run about $16,000 for each room, although in-kind matches such as land donations might qualify.

 

"Somebody's going to have to come up with the 25 percent," he said.

 

While a state law could require the trailer park owner to cover the local funding, Ahlberg said his research has failed to turn up such a regulation in other states. Wichita, Kan., is the only city he's found so far that requires mobile home parks to provide emergency shelters.

 

Ahlberg said he likes the safe room concept better than a liability exemption for off-site shelter providers because he has learned that some mobile home park residents don't own cars. During severe weather, seconds matter.

 

"It's an issue that needs to be addressed," Ahlberg said.

 

Haar tried to address the problem in 2011 by offering immunity to off-site shelter providers. He said his bill raised objections from lobbyists for trial attorneys, and it failed to get out of the Health and Human Services Committee.

 

A spokesman for the company that manages three mobile home parks in Lincoln -- including Woodlawn Estates -- declined to comment Monday.<Name

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