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The older mobile homes that dot Pinellas are sitting ducks if a hurricane strikes. Think flying debris and 80,000 homeless people.

Three years ago, Hurricane Charley charged up Charlotte Harbor and wrought havoc on the weakest structures of Charlotte County.

Before taking a right turn, Charley was headed toward Tampa Bay. Had the storm hit the bay area, it could have destroyed almost 50,000 mobile homes. Pinellas County alone has nearly 46,000 mobile homes, which ranks second in the state.

"The vulnerability of mobile homes, especially in your county, is one of the true ticking time bombs," said Leslie Chapman-Henderson of FLASH: the Federal Alliance for Safe Home, which works on protecting homes from storms.

Pinellas County leads the state in older mobile homes, which adds a huge risk of catastrophic damage should a major hurricane strike the area, officials and experts claim. While the debris could injure and displace residents, mobile homes are a necessary, yet dangerous, affordable housing option.

"They're not going anywhere any time soon," said Craig Fugate, the state's director of the Division of Emergency Management. "It is what it is, part of the housing."

Data on the specific ages and locations of mobile homes are hard to come by, researchers and officials agree. Most jurisdictions tally the numbers and locations of mobile home parks, but there is no central database with a verifiable count of what's on the ground. Pinellas County's property appraiser and tax collector have come up with the most accurate inventory in the region, maybe the state.

"Everyone has a lot of difficulty counting them," said Betti Johnson, principal planner for the emergency management program with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. "I'm surprised you have that."

Of Pinellas' mobile homes, more than 43,000 predate the codes designed to make them hurricane resistant. In Charlotte County, 90 percent of similar mobile homes were destroyed. At that rate, Pinellas could lose 39,000 mobile homes.

But a better comparison would be with Miami-Dade County and Hurricane Andrew, the 1992 Category 5 storm that begat the newest codes. The affected area lost 97 percent of its mobile homes. Entire parks were wiped off the map and the debris flew miles away, damaging conventional homes. Because Pinellas' stock is much like Miami-Dade's pre-Andrew, the damage could be enormous.

"You're going to have major problems," said Charles Danger, Miami-Dade County's building official. "Even a Category 1 is going to create problems for you."

Planning officials estimate just over two residents per mobile home. At a 97 percent rate of destruction, a direct hit of a major storm could produce 80,000 homeless people in Pinellas from mobile homes alone.

"Given the ages (of mobile homes), we have to stress the need to evacuate, regardless of where they're located," said Tom Iovino, spokesman for Pinellas County Emergency Management.

Evacuating should get people out of harm's way, but most mobile home dwellers would be coming back to nothing. Iovino said the county expects to use open spaces and perhaps old mobile home parks to install temporary shelters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency often brings in mobile homes, and an old park already has the infrastructure for such uses.

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Other bay area counties have fewer mobile homes. Hillsborough, 34,000; Pasco, 33,700; and Manatee, about 23,000, according to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. Data on precise ages is not as complete as in Pinellas, but officials in other counties say that doesn't matter.

"Year of construction is not a major concern," said Holley Wade, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Emergency Management. "Anything that's a mobile home is considered debris."

Wade and others said they don't expect every home to be destroyed, but they plan on that possibility.

"Even brand-new mobile homes that have screen rooms or carports have potential to add to the debris field," said Jim Johnston, operations coordinator for Pasco County's Office of Emergency Management.

That debris field, the cloud of pieces flying in 100-mph winds, represents another level of danger.

"During a hurricane, you don't want to be downstream of a trailer park," said Dr. Stephen Leatherman, head of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University. In Pinellas, "you have the highest density of mobile homes so you have the worst vulnerability from these things."

Danger said he saw evidence after Andrew of mobile home debris flying 2 and 3 miles. Other research points to debris damage that caused regular homes to fail in the storm.

James Ayotte, executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, concedes some failings of mobile homes, but he stresses differences of era and nomenclature.

"We really need to segregate the industry," Ayotte said. "Older homes have a bad rap. Is it deserved? Yeah. Past history is evidence of that. But there was not one catastrophic failure of a new manufactured home" in 2004 and 2005.

Researchers and officials agree that newer mobiles are better than old, but no one says they're as safe as a site-built home.

The International Hurricane Research Center was asked to look into taking older mobile homes out of the population. To do so, as of 2005, the cost would be about $7-billion for Florida's roughly half-million pre-1994 mobile homes. Mandating that owners get newer units isn't feasible because most can't afford anything more substantial.

"It's a form of housing that was planned to be obsolete, but they continue to be used beyond that point," said Trent Green, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of South Florida. "A lot of low-income families find it's the only way to keep a roof over their heads."

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Mobiles don't stand up to storms, but they were built well enough to last otherwise. Pinellas has a few units from the 1940s but thousands from the '60s and '70s.

"People have to make a decision on how they're going to live," said John Pistorino, president of the Miami engineering firm Pistorino and Alam. "It's economical to live in a mobile home, but they're simply tin shacks. They have no business anywhere near a storm."

The state has made efforts to retrofit mobile homes to make them safer, but there are limits to that as well. Since passing a law in 1999 to tie mobiles more tightly to the ground, the state has spent about $2-million a year to retrofit about 15,000 homes, but won't do the work on the oldest homes.

"We wouldn't do pre-1976 homes because it's not worth the effort," said Jerry Schilling, who administers the state's tie-down program through Tallahassee Community College. "There's got to be some insurable value."

Even Ayotte, the industry representative, said there's little to be done to the pre-Andrew homes. Leatherman said reviews by the International Hurricane Research Center after Charley showed tie-downs holding down pieces of a mobile home that had otherwise disintegrated.

The state's My Safe Florida Home program allotted $7.5-million last year for tie-downs on mobiles and for retrofits to add-on structures like carports. This year, the Legislature budgeted another $15-million for that mitigation, but Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that allocation.

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Those who live in mobile homes have come under increasing pressure as the land on which they sit has increased in value. Some Pinellas parks have been cleared to make way for condominiums, removing hundreds of homes from the rolls.

While redevelopment has become a hot political issue in some circles, it's a welcome idea for emergency managers. Danger, Miami-Dade's building official, said many of the homes lost in Andrew have been replaced with stronger units, but he'd rather there were no mobile homes at all.

"You don't learn from your neighbor," Danger said. "You've got to get hit to learn something."

Those who deal with hurricane preparedness say they're very familiar with the dangers posed by old mobile homes, adding that without personal experience, residents don't listen.

"There's no easier place to do public education than a place that's had a storm," said Chapman-Henderson of FLASH: the Federal Alliance for Safe Home. "Miami gets it, South Florida gets it, Southwest Florida gets it. In your area, it's harder."

Fugate, the state emergency management head, said Pinellas' old mobiles are just the tip of the iceberg. He said much of the county's building stock comes from less stringent codes and has never been tested. He said people's lives may be at risk.

"Your schools are going to have more damage, your homes will have more damage, you're going to see a lot of roof failures because a lot of them are not built to the new codes," Fugate said.

"Then, just like in New Orleans, the majority of the people are going to say, 'We didn't know it was going to be this bad.' "

By the numbers

4,000 mobile homes in Hillsborough County

33,700 mobile homes in Pasco County

23,000 mobile homes in Manatee County

46,000 mobile homes in Pinellas County

2nd Pinellas County's rank in Florida for number of mobile homes

39,000 estimated number of mobile homes Pinellas County could lose

80,000 estimated number of mobile home residents who would end up homeless as the result of a major storm

$7.5M allotment from Florida's My Safe Florida Home program for tie-downs on mobile homes and retrofits for add-on structures