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SPECIAL REPORT: Tornado safety in mobile home parks with a lack of storm shelters

(WAOW) — It was the deadliest tornado in the United States in almost six years.

23 people lost their lives on March 3rd when an EF-4 tornado packing winds over 170 mph devastated Beauregard, Alabama. 19 of those fatalities occurring in mobile homes.

There was no storm shelter in the park, and the nearest one was 40 minutes away.

Similar issues found here in Wisconsin.

Back in May 2017 an EF-3 tornado tore across 83 miles of the badger state, killing one man in Chetek, tossing another woman 50 ft in the air, and injuring 25 people when the mobile homes they were taking shelter in were obliterated.

It’s important that people understand that no place is safe in a mobile home in a strong tornado.” says Jeff Last, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Green Bay. He’s the primary meteorologist who survey’s storm damage in our area.

There are too many tornado deaths because people aren’t able to identify a shelter before the storm hits,” says Last.

43 percent of all tornado deaths nation wide occur in mobile or manufactured homes, and while most tornadoes in Wisconsin are weak, EF-0 or EF-1, an astonishing 70% of all Ef-1 tornado deaths occur in mobile homes.

Last says the high winds of tornadoes and even severe thunderstorms with straight line winds pose significant problems for mobile homes because of the way mobile homes are constructed and how they’re connected or tethered to the foundation.

He says typically there isn’t much more than a few nails or bolts that attach the homes to the slab, and some solely rely on gravity.

Last: “Some mobile homes I’ve seen when I’ve done damage surveys are just on blocks like cinder blocks, just using gravity as a way to keep it down. Any severe thunderstorm or non severe thunderstorm can easily blow those over.”

This was the case in Manitowoc county in May of 2000 when a severe thunderstorm with 75 mph winds knocked over several mobile homes.

The lack of storm shelters in mobile home parks is a problem across the entire U.S. Currently Minnesota is the only state in the lower 48 that requires mobile home parks to provide a storm shelter.

Last says a well run park will have a good plan in place which will enable all citizens to get inside if they need to.

Lazy Acres Estates in Stettin is one of the few mobile home parks in North Central Wisconsin that has a designated storm shelter.

Steve Oelke, the head of maintenance in the park, tells me they actually have two storm shelters located within the park that are always open in case severe weather threatens the area.

Oelke says they have benches in their shelters, the lights are on, the door is always open and never locked, and there’s not even a door knob so people can come and get in there right away.

Something that’s very important, especially after a close call in April 2017 when an EF-1 tornado touched down just a few blocks away from the park.

But if you’re one of the many people who live in a mobile or manufactured home that doesn’t have a storm shelter, it’s imperative that you have a severe weather safety plan in place and pay close attention to the weather.

Last says it’s important that people know the forecast if you live in a mobile home so that if a watch is issued you have a plan in place and you’re ready to take action before the warning is issued. That plan should include shelter of some sort, like a friends home with a basement for example, a sturdy building, local business nearby, or a shelter on site.

You should also have a severe weather safety kit prepared with bike helmets to protect your head from flying debris, goggles, a pair of gloves, blankets, and most importantly make sure you’re wearing shoes when the warning is issued so that if the storm hits your building or home, and you need to walk through that debris, you don’t get anything in your feet.

And if you have absolutely no way of getting to a place of safety – try to get to the center of the mobile home and put as many walls between you and the outside as you can.

To find out where your local public storm shelter is located, you should call your local county emergency manager. The number for each county is listed below.

Adams: 608-339-4248

Ashland: 715-685-7640

Clark: 715-743-5100

Florence: 715-528-3410

Forest: 715-478-3430

Iron: 715-561-3266

Jackson: 715-284-0263

Juneau: 608-847-9393

Langlade: 715-627-6257

Lincoln: 715-536-6228

Marathon: 715-261-1229

Menominee: 715-799-5074

Oneida: 715-361-5167

Price: 715-339-5239

Portage: 715-346-1397

Shawano: 715-526-6774

Taylor: 715-748-3503

Waupaca: 715-258-4464

Waushara: 920-787-3321

Wood: 715-421-8500

Vilas: 715-479-3690

Sam Kuffel

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