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Andrew's ruins say it all about mobile homes

Editor's note: This column was written Friday, before the series of tornadoes struck the Tampa Bay area on Saturday.

It won't be easy to forget the photographs of South Florida mobile home parks completely flattened by the winds of Hurricane Andrew. That's good, because in those pictures was a warning for Pinellas County mobile home residents.

Almost 55,000 people here live in mobile homes _ 1.25-million in the whole state. It often is the home style chosen by low- to moderate-income families and retirees who don't want a big portion of their nest egg eaten up by housing costs.

Take a plane ride over Largo and the white roofs of mobile homes stretch out below you like a shining white plain. Mobile homes make up a third of Largo's housing stock, a higher percentage than in any other Pinellas County city.

But it should comfort Largo residents to know that the mobile home industry _ excuse me, they like to be called the "manufactured home" industry _ is producing only high-quality, safe housing.

"The construction standards . . . are very stringent and compare favorably with local building codes. Each manufactured home is inspected by an independent third party, further assuring the consumer of a quality-built, safe and affordable home," wrote Ken Cashin, president of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, in a recent letter to the Times.

Unlike other structures in your city, mobile homes aren't inspected as they are built by the local building inspectors. And the Southern Standard Building Code, which builders must adhere to, doesn't apply to the manufacturers of mobile homes.

Instead, mobile homes are built to separate standards set up by the federal government. The Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards were adopted in 1976 and are administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Inspectors are sent to the factories to see if manufacturers are complying with the codes.

But those inspectors don't observe and approve the construction at several junctures, as do the local building inspectors checking site-based construction. Instead, they conduct "representative inspections" in the factories _ they check at intervals, so that each mobile home is inspected in at least one stage of production. The manufacturers' own in-house inspectors are in charge of checking other stages to see if they comply with the HUD Code.

But not to worry. The Florida Manufactured Housing Association hired a California testing company to compare the HUD Code to the Southern Standard Building Code. The company concluded in its report, dated January of this year, that "we believe from a health, safety and durability standpoint, manufactured housing provides a comparable safe shelter. Local code officials should feel confident that by allowing properly installed manufactured homes in their community, they are by no means endangering the life of the occupants."

The association's slick Reference Guide, filled with color photographs of sturdy-looking, attractive mobile homes, makes a further claim:

"The wind load factor of HUD Code homes also often exceeds local building code requirements. The strict HUD Code standards have resulted in manufactured homes withstanding 110 mph hurricane winds. Manufactured homes built to the HUD Code and anchored properly are as safe as any other structure in high winds."

Oh, come on. Remember the pictures? We saw mobile home parks in South Florida with not a single mobile home left. We saw mobile homes in treetops. We saw concrete pads with the tie-downs remaining and nothing else.

On the other hand, most of the subdivisions of site-built, single-family homes at least had something left standing. In some cases, only the roofs were gone.

Industry officials have countered that many of Homestead's mobile homes were built before the HUD Code went into effect in 1976, or weren't tied down because they existed prior to state tie-down laws that went on the books in 1973.

That probably was true in some cases, but it is difficult to look at large expanses of flattened mobile homes and believe that every single home was built before 1976 or placed there before 1973.

It is naive to believe anything except this: After a Category 4 or 5 hurricane like Andrew, much of Largo would look like a steamroller had run amok over the city.

Largo officials have been picturing that, and they have been talking about what they can do to make mobile homes safer in a storm. There isn't much. About all local building officials are given authority to do is inspect the tie-downs.

Not to worry, says the mobile home industry. The industry and the federal government are eager to review the standards and see if changes need to be made.

But did you see the story out of Washington last week? Witnesses before a congressional subcommittee said the government has done virtually nothing to toughen construction standards for mobile homes in the wake of Hugo and Andrew. Federal Housing Commissioner Arthur Hill told the subcommittee that he doesn't expect any recommendations in the next three years. A National Commission on Manufactured Housing, created in 1990 by Congress to study ways to make mobile homes safer in storms, hasn't made any recommendations either, according to testimony.

Maybe there are ways to make mobile homes safer. Federal, state and industry officials ought to be tripping over each other in their hurry to find out.

But maybe there aren't. It is almost illogical to believe that a metal box tied to a concrete pad is going to be a safe port in the battering winds of a hurricane. People probably should assume that neither their lives nor their belongings will survive if they are inside a mobile home in a hurricane. The mobile home industry is perpetrating a dangerous fraud on consumers if it tries to make them think mobile homes are just as strong as other structures.

But making mobile homes safer is only half the equation. Most people live in mobile homes because that's all they can afford. Local governments and charitable groups should do everything they can to erect more affordable, site-built houses for those people who have no alternative but low-cost housing. In hurricane-prone areas, getting people out of mobile homes and into safer housing must be a goal for the future.