COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - Nineteen of the twenty-three victims in the Beauregard tornado were in mobile or manufactured homes. As of April 9th, in the state of Alabama, there have been four tornado deaths this year – all of them in these vulnerable places, and when you look at the big picture nationally, 54% of all tornado deaths come in these structures – even though they make up only 6% of the housing in the United States.
And this isn't only happening in the big tornadoes like we saw in lee county last year. EF-4 and EF-5 storms make up only 1% of all tornadoes in the US every year.
Even though we want those that live in vulnerable locations to get out and go somewhere else, there are steps you can take to make your home more survivable if you don't have any other choice but to stay.
Dr. David Roueche from Auburn University is at the forefront of research being done into why mobile and manufactured homes are so deadly in tornadoes – even the weaker ones.
“Very rarely do I see a roof come off of a mobile home – especially the newer ones. The box is built pretty well, what always fails is the anchorage,” he says.
And it’s not just about surveying damaged structures.
“Not trying to just look at what was destroyed but trying to look at some ones that performed better than expected as well and what we can learn from those,” he adds.
Ultimately, that research has led to an important truth.
“Honestly, I think the biggest impact we can have on reducing future fatalities and injuries is adding just enough anchorage so that anchorage is not the first thing to fail,” Roueche tells us.
For those purchasing a new manufactured home, it’s about three things – taking an active role in the installation process, making a choice to budget more money toward the anchorage system versus another upgrade, and not using what’s called a ‘pan system’ of anchoring.
Roueche tells us, “We’ve seen these types of systems fail at very low wind speeds and fail catastrophically. They’re just not safe systems.”
In a pan system, steel tubes brace the home frame against a pan that rests on the ground – it isn’t anchored in any way. The lifting forces of a tornado can easily cause this to fail in a catastrophic way.
Experts say that tie-downs or anchor straps are better ways to ensure your mobile or manufactured home is more survivable – if they are installed properly and inspected regularly.
“Probably the biggest issue that we saw in the March 3rd event was significant corrosion in a lot of the anchors and the straps as well. I mean there’s no capacity left and it’s a brittle connection, and it doesn’t take much wind at all to snap that and roll the structure,” adds Roueche.
Those in these structures could take their cues from elsewhere when it comes to added strength and stability according to Chris Darden, the Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama.
“There are things we can do inland in Alabama that we’ve done along the coast - along the Gulf Coast – to make homes safer,” he says. The US is broken up into three wind zones - and while most of the country falls into Zone one, there’s nothing that prevents people from upgrading their home to Zone two requirements. Those upgrades include additional vertical tie-down straps that can resist uplifting forces. That would satisfy the department of Housing and Urban Development requirements.
Roueche adds, “Talking with some installers, manufacturers, and other people involved in this industry, you can upgrade to a Zone 2 home generally for a cost increase of 1,000 dollars or less. If you can wrap that into your mortgage, that’s the best bang for your buck in improving survivability of your manufactured home.”
While these steps will be most helpful in surviving the more common EF-2 and lower tornadoes, they can also help in the stronger storms - like the one that hit Beauregard in 2019.
“If we’re designing our structures for 120 mph and a 170 mph event comes through, it’s going to fail. We understand that. What we want it to do is fail in the right way that gives us the highest chance of surviving and the lowest chance of injury,” he says.
Remember, the first - and best - option, is to still leave a vulnerable location for another, safer shelter nearby...and to always be prepared for the worst case scenario. Rita Smith, the Director of the Lee County EMA knows this firsthand from the experiences of her county back on March 3, 2019.
“I’ve listened to a lot of stories of people who thought it would be okay. I’ve listened to a lot of stories of people who no longer have homes and who no longer have loved ones that thought it would be okay,” she says.
“If you have not made a plan for your family, now’s the time to make a plan,” Darden adds.
Another question we brought up - the existence of any state building codes that govern how these structures are installed. You might be surprised to learn that Alabama lacks a statewide building code for residences. Georgia does have one, but it is up to local county governments to have the funds, time, energy, and effort to enforce it.