Safeguarding Mobile Homes Against Tornadoes

Mar 10, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Twenty-three people died when a tornado hit the area around Beauregard, Ala., last week. It was an intense storm with winds up to 170 miles per hour. But civil engineering professor David Roueche of Auburn University wonders if the toll had to be so high. He told me the victims lived in a rural area, many in mobile or manufactured homes on large lots, not in a mobile park. So building a shelter at a central location would not have helped.

DAVID ROUECHE: Yes, we would love everyone to have an official FEMA-certified tornado shelter available to them. But the fact of the matter is most of these people in these rural settings live, you know, 20 miles from the nearest designated shelter. And in these communities where people are scattered like that, how do you provide a shelter that's within a close enough distance that, in a moment's notice, they can go there when they're so scattered? So it's a big challenge.

MARTIN: So in a recent Twitter feed, you suggested some things that actually could be done. So what are some of the things that could be done? And would those things have helped in the event of a storm like the one that hit Beauregard, which was such an intense experience?

ROUECHE: Unfortunately, I don't think there is a magic solution that's going to just fix all of the fatalities, one single thing. Our goal needs to be on not providing a tornado-proof mobile or manufactured home or even site-built home but improving survivability. What are things that we can do that will keep that structure together long enough that, as this tornado approaches, the home is not disintegrated and exposing the occupants to the flying debris and the extreme winds?

And so, with manufactured homes, it really does come down to the anchorage, for the most part, that we see that leads to fatalities. If homes are not properly anchored - and, in most cases, these are homes that are using these steel anchors that are anchored into the ground and then straps tying to the chassis. If those are not installed properly, that can make it much easier for the winds to be able to just lift up that entire structure and toss it, roll it. And that's where you start to see those fatalities occurring.

MARTIN: So I understand that about 13 percent of people in Alabama live in mobile or manufactured homes, and that's actually higher in some areas. I take it the building codes don't require these standards now. And if not, why not?

ROUECHE: We do. And the building code as well as the housing and urban development, the standard for mobile homes and manufactured homes that those follow, they do require anchorage. The problem that I'm seeing as I go out and investigate these is that, yes, that we can require anchors, and we can talk here about - maybe about the benefits of adding more anchors or some other aspects that may help. But when I actually go out and survey, a lot of these are missing anchors, or they're not installed properly. So it comes down to a lack of enforcement.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that this tragedy is still new, and many people in the community have rallied around the people who have suffered through this. But are people talking about this?

ROUECHE: It has been wonderful to see the response of the community and the abundance of volunteers, but people are 15 to 20 times more likely to be killed in a mobile home compared to a permanent home. And if we don't talk about this and we're not trying to come to - develop solutions, apply these solutions, we're going to see this same story happen again and again and again. And I don't want to see that happen. This is my goal as an engineer to protect life safety. I think we can. It's not easy, but I think this is something that we have to set as our goal and do whatever it takes to get there.

MARTIN: That's David Roueche, assistant professor of civil engineering at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. Professor Roueche, thanks so much for talking to us.

ROUECHE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.