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MOBILE HOMES A 'TIME BOMB'

Older homes are at the greatest risk during hurricanes, experts say.

In Riverbend Mobile Home Park, a leafy neighborhood with sand-colored street signs, resident Miriam Brewer leads a contented life.

She has a quick drive to the stores, inexpensive rent for her lot, more space than a little apartment affords and a decade of memories spent there with her late husband.

But every summer reminds Brewer, 80, that her contentment comes with risks: Hurricanes can devastate mobile homes, particularly older ones like hers.

"I'll stay until they tell me to go," said Brewer, whose mobile home is about 35 years old. "I'm not going to jeopardize myself."

With the busiest part of hurricane season fast approaching, emergency management officials and other experts are once again pointing to the vulnerability of mobile homes.

Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, calls mobile homes "one of the true ticking time bombs."

Officials and experts say the older mobile homes - those built before the 1994 federal building codes designed to make them more wind-resistant - pose a huge risk of catastrophic damage.

That puts Pasco County in a risky realm. Here, more than 80 percent of the county's 47,400 mobile homes were built in 1994 and earlier, according to the property appraiser's office.

Why do those numbers matter? Consider the devastation in Miami-Dade County from Hurricane Andrew, the 1992 category 5 storm that brought about the later codes. The affected area lost 97 percent of its mobile homes. Entire parks were wiped off the map, and the debris flew miles away, becoming missiles that damaged site-built homes.

With older housing, "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."

Unrealistic to replace

So what would it take to replace Florida's pre-1994 mobile homes - roughly a half-million of them - with more storm-worthy models? About $7-billion, the International Hurricane Research Center estimated in 2005.

Mandating that owners get newer units isn't feasible because many 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."

Joan Greathouse, manager of the Tropic Breeze mobile home and RV park in Port Richey, where nearly all of the units are older homes, said, "This is a fixed-income park, and they can't afford to go anywhere else."

The mobile home industry is quick to highlight the differences between the older homes and the newer ones.

"We really need to segregate the industry," said Jim Ayotte, executive director of the Florida Manufactured Home Association. "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" from the hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

A hazard to neighbors

Officials and researchers agree that the newer mobile homes are safer than the old ones, but no one says they're as safe as a site-built home.

"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 field, the cloud of debris flying in 100-mph winds, represents another level of danger to people in mobile and site-built homes alike.

"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.

Earnest Williams, a State Farm agent and a St. Petersburg City Council member, noted that houses near a mobile home park could be destroyed by the debris.

"The debris is everywhere," he said. "It's a vulnerability, a big one."

Such scenarios raise insurance-related questions that are interesting but hard to answer. Experts disagree over the impact of mobile homes on the surrounding insurance market.

Rocky Scott, spokesman for state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., said neighbors of mobile homes are probably paying more for their insurance than someone farther away.

"If you live next to a mobile home park, the chances for debris damage are higher," he said. "In a hurricane, once the debris starts flying, it creates a hazard to homes around them."

But state regulators and some others say insurers consider only the insured structure and what happens on its property, not the expectation of wind-borne debris.

Houses near mobile homes should be sure to board up or protect their windows, experts say.

"If you live near a mobile home park that has older homes," said Tim Reinhold of the Institute for Business and Home Safety, "your first priority ought to be window protection."

The first to evacuate

So what's next? When storms are approaching, the biggest emphasis, as usual, is on evacuation. In Pasco County, mobile home residents are among the first people who face evacuation orders, regardless of where they live.

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 mobile homes more securely to the ground, the state has spent about $2-million on retrofitting mobile homes. But it 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."

Leatherman said reviews by the International Hurricane Research Center after Hurricane 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 mobile homes 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.

Back at the Tropic Breeze park, Greathouse, the manager, says some residents have gathered in the concrete-block community center at the park during previous evacuations. Others say they realize they'd just need to get out.

Ben Beck, who lives out of his RV, said he likes his place and has no plans to ever move into a house. But if there is a hurricane, he'd go stay with his daughter.

"I can just pack up and leave," he said. "If a storm takes it, well, too bad."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.

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