The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season has seen its first casualties, and the news is heartbreaking. Tropical Storm Claudette didn’t see wind speeds strong enough to become a hurricane, but that didn’t make it any less of a beast.
The storm formed Saturday and quickly made its way to the Southeast where it unleashed up to 15 inches of rain in some parts and even tornadoes. This torrent of rain was likely the culprit of a multi-vehicle crash near Montgomery, Alabama, that killed 13 people, most of whom were children. Elsewhere in Alabama, a 24-year-old father and his 3-year-old son were killed after a tree fell on their mobile home. Another mobile home community was “pretty much leveled” after a tornado roared through, the Associated Press reports.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we know we’re not all equally exposed to a storm’s wrath. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. In this newsletter, I’m diving into mobile homes, also known as manufactured homes, and the specific vulnerability associated with families who live in them. Today, most mobile home residents are located in the South, which is ground zero during hurricane season. Alabama, in particular, has half a million mobile homes. Many of these families remain at risk.
Though most of us call manufactured homes “mobile homes,” there’s nothing really mobile about them. Less than 20% ever actually move, according to Andrew Rumbach, the director of education at Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center who’s been studying mobile homes for almost 10 years. What may wind up inadvertently moving a home, are hurricane-grade winds and flooding. In that scenario, of course, the home doesn’t just wind up elsewhere. It usually winds up damaged or, worse, destroyed.
A majority of mobile homes in the U.S. are located in the South. This is also the region set to see some of the greatest climate impacts—from increases in mortality to direct damage. When a hurricane rolls through, no one is safe. However, manufactured homes—especially those within a mobile home park where the structures are grouped together on private property—represent a particular level of vulnerability due to who usually lives in them and how and where they’re built. It’s a housing model that’s poorly researched and understood within the academic and policy space—and that leaves mobile homeowners and residents in a precarious position during and after disaster. How can you help a group of people if you’re not paying attention to them?
“Mobile home parks represent a concentration of socially vulnerable populations,” Rumbach said.“They can be left out or not have access to the same kinds of resources after a disaster that other households might get, and that makes them slower to recover. That’s a huge equity concern.”
A number of factors makes this population vulnerable. For one, we all know the stigma attached to so-called “trailer parks.” This stigma carries consequences. The surrounding community may be less welcoming. Residents may be more reluctant to ask for help. Elected officials forget about their needs. It doesn’t help that more than 30% of people living in a mobile home park in the U.S. are in poverty, according to this 2019 paper published in the journal Housing Policy Debate. The vast majority of these people are white: nearly 75%. More than 17% are Latine, who may also face language barriers.
“You’re often leaving behind your home in this place that you have no say over the future of, and that makes it a very unique case.”
These communities opt for manufactured homes because they’re affordable—way more affordable than renting or owning conventionally in their neighborhoods. Rebuilding after a storm, however, is costly. Without the proper financial resources and support, it can be downright impossible. For some families, recovery is never an option because while they own their homes, they rent the land their houses sit on. If the property owner of a mobile home park decides to close it or sell the land, residents are screwed. And the federal government doesn’t offer programs that cater to this demographic. Mobile homeowners are ineligible for much of what is available post-disaster. Rumbach calls them the “third housing type.”
“That divided ownership drives so many interesting specific vulnerabilities that are unique to mobile home park residents,” Rumbach said.“If you were just a renter, then you can leave, and you wouldn’t have left behind anything of value. You could move somewhere else, but you’re often leaving behind your home in this place that you have no say over the future of, and that makes it a very unique case where people are often losing a large portion of their overall wealth.”
So that’s one element that compounds the levels of vulnerability. Then, there’s the structural concerns. Historically, manufactured homes were not built to withstand hurricane-level winds and floods. That finally changed after Hurricane Andrew destroyed or damaged more than 10,000 manufactured homes in 1992. Two years later, the Department of Housing and Urban Development finally wisened up and updated the building standards to better withstand strong wind speeds.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of older manufactured homes across the U.S. that aren’t properly anchored to the ground to prevent them from rolling over or lifting off. Roofs can easily come off, too. Some older homes can even experience walls blowing out due to pressure building inside, said Elaina Sutley, the chair’s council assistant professor of structural engineering at the University of Kansas who researched manufactured homes post-Hurricanes Irma and Michael in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Evacuation is so critical during hurricanes—but even more so when you live in such a structurally weak building.
“It gives me great concern for manufactured home residents who don’t evacuate for their own safety,” Sutley said. “The winds from hurricanes and tornadoes can completely destroy these structures, and flood waters can get so high that they can lift the unit up off the foundation and move it… All these reasons create major threats to people who stay in their homes when a hurricane is approaching.”
The structural and societal issues layer on top of the geographic concerns. The homes’ locations exacerbate everything else. Is the mobile home park on a floodplain? Is there enough greenery to absorb floodwaters? Are there drainage systems to send the waters elsewhere? How reliable is the grid to receive alerts or communicate post-disaster?
But things don’t have to be this way. Society should benefit from the affordability of these homes. Homeowners and their communities should benefit. Without efforts to keep them safe during disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods, these housing options feel more like a cost—one with a deadly potential.
“It’s a really complicated issue, especially in places with hurricanes,” Rumbach said. “On the one hand, mobile homes and mobile home parks are a terrific source of affordable housing, and they provide a type of housing affordability level that we’re not providing through other types of housing development. They’re absolutely essential within our housing system, and yet they’re also very vulnerable to hurricanes. And that’s a really troubling issue from a life and safety perspective.”
What mobile home park residents need is more rights, and that’s only possible through legislation that protects them and appreciates the role mobile homes play in the U.S. housing market. We can’t stop hurricanes from happening, but we can serve the communities affected by them. In fact, we must.