Alabama’s mobile homes and tornadoes a dangerous mix

At least four of the 23 people killed in Sunday’s tornado outbreak in Lee County were said to have been inside mobile homes when the EF-4 tornado hit Beauregard. That number could grow as we learn more about what happened.

But whatever the final totals from Sunday’s storm, Alabama’s combination of relatively high numbers of tornadoes and mobile homes will continue to be an issue for the state in years to come, according to Stephen Strader, an atmospheric scientist at Villanova University.

Strader published research last year showing that Alabama had a 350 percent greater risk of tornado impact on mobile homes than Kansas, a comparison state that also experiences tornadoes.

Strader said that Alabama has a higher percentage of mobile homes than many other states, and that those mobile homes are spread out across wider areas, not just concentrated in trailer parks or large-scale mobile home developments.

"As you’re driving down a country road in Alabama, you see mobile homes peppered throughout those rural areas," Strader said. "You don’t see that typically in other parts of the U.S., and what that means in terms of impacts is when a tornado does occur, the odds of it hitting a mobile home, or affecting a mobile home resident, are much greater than anywhere else on Earth."

Excluding the massive storms on April 27, 2011, 65 percent of Alabama’s tornado fatalities from 2000-2017 occurred in mobile homes, according to statistics kept by the National Weather Service. Across the entire Southeast, 54 percent of tornado deaths occurred in mobile homes.

On April 27, 2011, unusually mammoth EF-5 tornadoes claimed most of the 231 lives lost to storms that day in Alabama. Strader said that in tornadoes as powerful as the April 2011 storms, the difference between mobile homes and permanent homes is much less pronounced. Only 54 of Alabama’s 245 tornado deaths from 2011 occurred in mobile homes.

"Those tornadoes in 2011 were so devastating that frankly, it didn’t really matter if you were in a mobile home or a permanent home," Strader said. "They were extremely dangerous and there were many of them, so that kind of skews the results."

The same may be true of Sunday’s Lee County storms, which had winds estimated at 170 miles per hour, and ravaged mobile and permanent homes alike.

Even including the 2011 storms, Alabama’s percentage of tornado deaths that occur in mobile homes is still around 30 percent, yet mobile homes make up just 14 percent of the total housing units in the state.

"What that statistic illustrates is a very small percentage of the housing stock, which are mobile homes, is responsible for over half the deaths [from tornadoes]," Strader said.

Why don’t people leave?

While weather forecasts and warning systems are continuously improving, and the forecast for Sunday’s tornado event has been described as a "slam dunk," many people stayed in mobile homes during dangerous storms.

"Really since the 2011 outbreak, we’ve started to realize we have to think about decision-making," Strader said. "If we can figure out why someone decides to flee versus why they don’t or why does someone decide to film the tornado with their cell phone versus take shelter, we can start addressing these issues."

In addition to his research on the prevalence and risk of mobile homes in areas where tornadoes are common, Strader said he is working on studies to understand people’s decision-making processes during tornadoes. He said he conducted interviews with more than 500 Alabamians about their tornado habits, including more than 50 living in mobile homes.

"We used to assume that mobile home residents just didn’t understand tornadoes and they didn’t get the warnings," Strader said. "Well, we were kind of wrong, or it’s changed. Mobile home residents know just as much about tornadoes, if not more, than the average citizen.

"They received the messages and the warnings just like everybody else, with plenty of time. So something’s going on where they’re making choices to stay or flee."

Where would people go?

Strader and other colleagues are working on a paper about the availability of tornado shelters in Alabama, including Lee County. He declined to discuss those results before completion of the peer review process for publication in a scientific journal, but he said that the lack of shelters may not be the biggest factor in preventing tornado deaths in Alabama going forward.

"There’s a lot of problems with just saying, ‘let’s just build shelters,’" he said. "There’s logical issues like how does the shelter get opened? Who opens it? Can people bring their pets? Do people have access to vehicles so they can actually drive to the shelters? How long do they have to make the decision before the warning comes out?

"What we’re starting to realize is just because there are shelters present, there’s decision-making processes that are keeping people from actually using them."

What can be done?

One potential improvement Strader suggested was to encourage or mandate mobile homes on concrete slabs to use tie-downs that attach the mobile homes to concrete and help secure it in the face of tornadic winds.

Those tie-downs may not be effective in the event of EF-4 or EF-5 storms like the one in Lee County, but could improve the odds of survival in lesser tornado events.

“It doesn’t seem like that would make a huge difference in these events, but those tiedowns, the very act of that simple reinforcement of anchoring the mobile home keeps it from getting rolled over,” Strader said. “It keeps it from getting tossed and it increases the survivability of people that might be in there.”

More tornadoes in populated areas

The occurrence of tornadoes in populated areas of Alabama seems destined to increase, Strader said, as populations continue to expand into previously undeveloped areas, and the frequency of tornadoes in Alabama edges up, as shown by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Northern Illinois University.

Victor Gensini at NIU and Harold Brooks at NOAA published a study last year showing a shifting of tornado activity over recent years, with the number of tornadoes decreasing in western Oklahoma but increasing in the "Mid-South" region that includes Alabama.

Strader said the potential of seeing more tornadoes in areas like Alabama, which are vulnerable because of the large numbers and wide distribution of mobile homes in the area is "a bit scary."

"You have tornado patterns and tornado risk shifting further east as you have this inflating population in these vulnerable areas," he said. "What we’ve seen and what we expect to see continuing into the future — with climate change, with development change, urban sprawl — is greater odds of tornado impacts, greater disaster potential, increasing number of people affected by these events.

"And it’s a pretty scary thought.”

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