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Inspection finds mobile homes in shoddy condition

Jim Ellington showed off his dexterity as a code enforcement officer on Monday.

Outfitted in a camouflage jacket, khaki pants and homemade bobcat mittens _ stitched from real bobcat fur _ Ellington squeezed under a mobile home and twisted himself up through one of the many holes in the floor.

His job was to figure out how a wind storm this weekend split open a pair of trailers like tin cans and knocked another handful off their bases.

"Watch this," Ellington said as he punched one of his mittens through a piece of rotten floorboard. "Zero structural integrity."

While residents in the Fern Hill Mobile Home Park were stirring through the mess of destroyed homes and picking up the soggy pieces of their lives, inspectors like Ellington were studying the wreckage. The conclusions were grim: all of the homes destroyed by high winds Saturday night were in sorry shape, ripe for disaster.

Metal straps that are supposed to secure many of the homes were untied, rusted or missing altogether. Floorboards in many of the trailers were rotted, leaving the walls held together by a few staples buried in soft, wet particle board. And roofs were already peeling off, a perfect target for a mean gust of wind.

Ellington, who works for Hillsborough County, ended up condemning eight of the 15 mobile homes in the park. Within the next month or two, those residents will have to find another place to live. Some are currently staying in shelters.

But worse than that, Saturday's storm revealed how dangerous storms can be for the many people living in older mobile homes, Ellington said. Of the 62,000 mobile homes in the county, many are more than 25 years old and almost half are in substandard condition.

Unfortunately, the county does not have the staff to inspect all the problem homes and usually waits for complaints. And sometimes it's difficult to tell what's simply old and what's dangerous.

At the Fern Hill park, inspectors last year fined owner Danny Spitler twice for not clearing away garbage. But they didn't cite any of the older trailers for safety problems that, upon closer inspection, were glaring. Spitler said he will continue running the park, until the "county shuts me down."

County officials are finishing up a report on the state of Hillsborough's mobile homes and will include the latest round of storm damage when they publish the report in the upcoming months.

But for the residents still living at Fern Hill, the worst may not be over. This week a cold snap is expected and temperatures may dip below freezing. The only heat many residents have is their stoves _ or their cars.

Ernest Chaple, whose home was condemned because of storm damage, plans to sleep in his van. On Saturday night, he was stroking his dog, Sugarbear, on his porch when a gust of wind knocked the walls down on top of him. He escaped unhurt but now worries about the cold.

"Got me a good heater in the van," Chaple said. "And I got God to protect me."