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Hurricane Ian highlighted the vulnerabilities of older mobile homes


By now, you've seen photos of the damage wrought by Hurricane Ian in southwest Florida. Some of the worst? The mobile home parks blown to smithereens. It's a perennial problem during hurricane season. Older mobile homes built to lower standards are acutely vulnerable. NPR's John Burnett tells us more.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A man in his 70s, eyes red-rimmed, holding a Budweiser, surveys the ruination that was once his happy home. John Boren (ph) is a retired construction worker from Massachusetts. His decapitated mobile home is in Gasparilla Mobile Estates, the name coming from the famed barrier island just offshore.

JOHN BOREN: How do you describe it? I mean, it's gone. You know, it's demolished.

BURNETT: It's as if a giant took a weed wacker to this community of 178 mobile homes, roofing and siding and skirting and decking strewn about in a frightful mess.

BOREN: That one was so strong. I mean, I've never seen anything like it. They claim it was stronger than Charley. I believe it now.

BURNETT: Before Ian, the hurricane of record was Charley in 2004. It was also a Category 4, with 150-mile-per-hour winds, but it spared Gasparilla. Life went on. Boren would motor out to the island in his skiff, and he and his wife would collect shells and fossilized sharks' teeth. They had a 40-year-old trailer. The rent on their lot was only $580 a month. On his $2,500 a month Social Security check, they got by on their little piece of paradise.

BOREN: These trailers have been here 40 years. I mean, it's a '72 trailer, thousands of dollars, and they won't pay it because it's a '72. You ain't going to pay nothing. Very few people here have insurance, and they've lost everything.

BURNETT: As did he.

BOREN: She used to - (crying) excuse me (crying).

BURNETT: John Boren's story epitomizes Florida's affordable housing dilemma. In 1994, two years after Hurricane Andrew pulverized the Homestead area, the federal government toughened wind standards for mobile homes, and the industry started calling them manufactured housing. They became more expensive. Today, for a low-income buyer, older mobile homes are decidedly cheaper.

JAIMIE ROSS: They're living in these mobile home parks because there is not an affordable housing stock available to them in the community that they could live in.

BOREN: Jaimie Ross is CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, an advocacy group.

ROSS: They should not be there because it is not stable housing in a state like Florida. This is what happens, these tragedies.

BOREN: But tell that to the retirees on fixed incomes like John Boren, the low wage earners, the farm workers who can't afford any place else in a booming state like Florida, where pricey condos stand shoulder to shoulder along sugar sand beaches. Gladys Cooke is the coalition's director of disaster recovery.

GLADYS COOK: The pressure on affordable housing in Florida is just excruciating. We've had land costs and construction costs go up 30% in just the last couple of years.

BURNETT: Old mobile housing stock is everywhere in Florida. Of 822,000 mobile and manufactured homes in the state, almost two-thirds of them are pre-1994 vintage. Major storms like Ian are culling, so to speak, the old structures.

JIM AYOTTE: Every time there's a hurricane, we see a number of our older homes that suffer catastrophic failures.

BURNETT: Jim Ayotte, CEO of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, says the industry suffers from an age-old image problem in many Florida cities and towns.

AYOTTE: They would rather see a mobile home park gone. They see it as a blight on the community. They don't really look at that as a affordable housing source. They say, let's get rid of it.

BURNETT: If you don't believe him, believe Jimmy Buffett.


JIMMY BUFFETT: (Singing) Yeah, they're ugly and square. They don't belong here. They look a lot better as beer cans.

BURNETT: He sings that they're ugly and square, they don't belong here, and they look like beer cans. But the fact is they're not beer cans anymore. Modern manufactured housing is built to withstand 150-mile-per-hour winds. In the last 30 years, if they're towed to the Florida coast, they have to have double studs, double roof trusses, double tie-downs, sturdier walls. The list goes on. Just ask Bob Murphy, president of the residents co-op at Park Hill Estates in Punta Gorda. He's riding around the development, checking on friends.

DANNY: Hi, Bob.

BOB MURPHY: Hi, Danny. How are you?

DANNY: I'm well.

MURPHY: You're doing OK? Your house fared very well, didn't it?

DANNY: It did. I can't complain.

MURPHY: Oh, good.

BURNETT: Eighteen years ago, Hurricane Charley decimated Park Hill Estates. Most of the older mobile homes were a total loss. Residents bought new homes built to modern wind standards with more robust tie-downs. Ian blew off the clubhouse roof. But on the whole, the community, from the shuffleboard court to the boat slips on Alligator Creek, is pretty much intact. Bob Murphy is 82. He watched Ian blow in on the Weather Channel from his summer home in Cincinnati. When he arrived here on Thursday, he was hugely relieved.

MURPHY: Well, the structures themselves seem to be pretty durable compared with this hurricane. Ninety-nine percent of the structures are standing. So, I mean, we have some siding off. We have some roof damage. We have the skirting off of a number of them. But for the most part, they held up pretty well.

BURNETT: Still, Murphy says he's too old to go through a third major storm like Charley or Ian. He'll be done with the Sunshine State. John Burnett, NPR News, Punta Gorda, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.