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'We didn't know where to hide': Mobile homes, slab-on-grade homes dangerously short on protection from storms

Anita Zuniga worried about the safety of herself and her family in her mobile home in the Bennett Park Cooperative in Moorhead as they weathered a recent storm. Dave Wallis / The Forum1 / 3
Ed Johnson, who lives in the Countryside Trailer Court in Fargo, said he thinks every mobile home park should have a public storm shelter. Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 3
William Mayville, who lives in the Riviera Heights mobile home park in north Fargo, said Wednesday, June 14, 2017, that he and his wife and their dog would have to go to another location if a dangerous storm threatened the Fargo area because there is no storm shelter in the park. (Photo by Helmut Schmidt/The Forum)3 / 3

FARGO — Under a bright blue sky and cottonball clouds, Ed Johnson was puttering around his yard in Countryside Trailer Court in south Fargo on Thursday, June 15.

It was an island of peace, compared with the angry gray skies, howling 60 mph winds and driving rain that ruled the region two days before.

Johnson said Tuesday's storm was a reminder of how tenuous safety can be in a mobile home. After all, a few years before a massive elm snapped just a few feet from his home during a similar storm.

"In a mobile home, you get a little nervous," Johnson said, adding, "I think it should be mandatory that every trailer court have a shelter."

But like many mobile home parks in the Fargo-Moorhead area, Countryside does not have a public storm shelter. In fact, Fargo doesn't have any such shelters, said Leon Schlafmann, the city's emergency services coordinator.

As an alternative, Schlafmann urges people to look for stores or other buildings open 24 hours, or to ask neighbors if they'd be willing to provide shelter.

Emergency management experts say now is the time to plan for how to deal with a weather emergency — especially if you live in a mobile home or "slab-on-grade" home, which has no basement or just a minimal crawl space. The metro area has over 3,300 slab-on-grade homes, and officials say they've noticed an uptick in the construction of them.

'No protection'

Fargo Assessor Ben Hushka said there are 1,927 homes, duplexes, twin homes and townhomes with no basement in Fargo. "We're starting to see more of them," he said.

But slab homes are still a distinct minority in the city, with 22,553 homes with partial or full basements, Hushka said.

West Fargo officials report 799 homes built on a cement slab. Moorhead has 592 slab-on-grade homes and another 1,144 with small crawl spaces.

Moorhead has 314 mobile homes, the city assessor's office reports. Hushka said Fargo has about 1,128 pads for mobile homes, with vacancy rates varying between 10 percent and 20 percent.

"If you live in a mobile home. You need to get out, period," if there is a tornado warning or a watch, said Clay County Emergency Manager Bryan Green, who's also a sheriff's department lieutenant. "There is no protection."

That's William Mayville's strategy. The resident of north Fargo's Riviera Heights mobile home park said that if a storm looks serious, he will take his wife and their dog and take off in a car.

"We've got to go elsewhere" for shelter, Mayville said. "Get out of here and go west to get away from it."

A slab-on-grade home offers more protection, Green said, though it still pays to have a plan to evacuate. If that's not possible, he said it's best to get to a first-floor interior room, like a closet or bathroom, and cover yourself.

People can also build safe rooms, he said.

"It's pretty rare. I know a few people out in the county that have gone through some bad storms, and they will put them in. If you do it right, it's a lot of cement and a lot of money," Green said.

Safety plans

Schlafmann said residents of mobile home parks should work with park managers to find out where good shelter is available.

For example, Fargo's Buena Vista park has a detailed plan for a range of emergencies, said Jennifer Ludovice, a spokeswoman for Equity Lifestyles Properties, which owns the park. All residents get a copy of the plan and are urged to sign up for severe weather alerts. Ludovice said fire officials recommend Buena Vista residents go to a nearby Hornbacher's grocery store to take shelter.

Amanda Johnson said the plan is one of the things about Buena Vista that make her feel safe. She also likes being surrounded by other homes.

"I stay right in my house. To me, it's safer in my opinion. I don't feel unsafe," Johnson said.

Though, she added that Tuesday's storm rattled her children a bit.

"My kids even crawled into bed with me last night," Johnson said.

In Moorhead's Bennett Park Cooperative, Anita Zuniga and two of her grandsons were fixing a fence after planting sunflowers by her mobile home.

Zuniga said Tuesday's storm knocked out her electricity. "We didn't know where to hide. I know they (trailer park owners) say go to Walmart or the high school."

She feels caught in a dilemma. She likes her mobile home, but the safety net she'd like has a price.

"If we ask for a shelter, they will raise our rent here," Zuniga said.

Tuesday's storm was a sample of how quickly wild weather brews up in the Red River Valley.

But it wasn't even a shadow of the horror and damage that was visited on Fargo 60 years ago.

On June 20, 1957, a massive supercell thunderstorm spawned five tornadoes, including a monster that ripped through the working-class Golden Ridge neighborhood, destroying 329 homes and damaging more than 1,000 others. At least a dozen people died, including six children in one family. Another 150 people were injured.

'A weather watcher'

Anita Markey and her husband live in the Goldenwood development on the north side of West Fargo in a slab-on-grade home with a small crawl space below ground level.

Markey said she feels secure.

"I don't have any problems" with not having a true basement, she said. "I'm kind of a weather watcher, so I go out and watch it. "

Not having a basement can actually be a plus, she said. People with basements can end up with water in them if the walls leak or soils get too saturated.

If there is a tornado warning, she said they have the option to head for a more secure location.

"It doesn't really worry me," Markey said.

Near West Fargo's Cheney Middle School, DeWitt and Marlene Batterberry have a crawl space under their home, but they also have three rooms on the first floor of their house where they can take shelter.

"We do watch for storms and are aware of changes in weather," Marlene said, pointing to her TV and cellphone.

"I can say, the years we've lived here, we never went down into the crawl space once," DeWitt said.

Carol Cwiak teaches emergency management at North Dakota State University.

Cwiak says that if you live in a mobile home — or other lightly built structures like lake cabins — you need to be aware of the weather, have a safety plan, and put that plan to a test.

"First of all, you're much more likely to die" in a mobile home, Cwiak said.

Researchers Daniel Sutter of the University of Texas-Edinburg and Kevin Simmons of Austin College in Sherman, Texas, reported in a 2010 paper that between 1985 and 2007, 43.2 percent of U.S. tornado deaths occurred in mobile homes, even though mobile homes comprised just 7.6 percent of U.S. housing in 2000. That means the probability of dying due to a tornado is 10 to 15 times higher than that of someone living in a permanent home, the researchers said.

In a 2017 report, Michigan State University researchers said the U.S. averages 1,200 twisters annually and has about 9 million mobile homes. With cities expanding and scientists predicting more unstable weather due to climate change, the annual impact of tornadoes is expected to rise threefold over the next few decades.

Cwiak suggests everyone invest in a weather alert radio, which can be bought for $30 to $40.

"It's one of the least expensive things you can do to protect your life," she said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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