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Spring Storms Again Have Focus On Mobile Home Safety

The movile home in Ellenboro, NC where 18-year-old twins Leticia and Celia Arzola died on May 11, 2011.

There are an estimated 9 million mobile homes in the US. At an average cost of around $80,000 depending on their make and model - they provide an affordable alternative to traditional homes. They're also often referred to as tornado magnets and known for being dangerous in storms. And with the outbreak of deadly storms across the South this spring, the safety of mobile homes has once again come into question. Shortly after midnight on May 11th, the volunteer fire department in Ellenboro, NC - just west of Shelby - was busy. A line of severe storms was moving through and trees were being blown over left and right. Firefighters were called to a singlewide trailer on the outskirts of town. Robbie Downey is Ellenboro's assistant fire chief. "The call came in through our dispatch that said a tree had fallen and two people were trapped under a tree," he says. "At that time we didn't know the severity of it." Firefighters arrived in four minutes. It was already too late. Inside, 18-year-old twin sisters Leticia and Celia Arzola were pinned under a large oak tree. "We knew by what we had that there was nothing we could do for the two girls," Downey says. "They had already passed on." The tree sliced through the mobile home. The oak stopped falling only when it hit the home's floor. Downey isn't sure if a regular house would have saved the girls. Four weeks ago four children died when a tree fell on their mobile home in Raleigh. North Carolina's worst tornado outbreak since the mid 1980s. Twenty four people died in those storms. According to media reports, at least seven lived in mobile homes. They're sad examples the dangers of mobile homes says Kevin Simmons. He's a professor at Austin College in Texas. He studies the effects of storms on mobile homes. "Nationally, mobile homes only amount to about 7.5 percent of the housing stock," Simmons says. "But they account for almost half of the fatalities from tornadoes." Simmons says there are several reasons for such the discrepancy. First, mobile homes are most popular in the South. Census data shows South Carolina at the top of the list with about one-fifth of its homes being mobile homes. In fact, nine of the top states for mobile homes - including North Carolina - are in the South. Simmons says the region also gets more overnight storms that hit when people are least prepared. And Simmons says, the South's significant tree cover means residents often can't see a tornado coming until it's too late. But those in the mobile home industry take issue with Simmons' findings. Mark Dillard is the head of South Carolina's Manufactured Housing Institute. He says the study didn't take everything into consideration. "If we could get the people who go out and do these studies and damage assessments to gather the age of the homes, you would see dramatic difference between houses built to prior building codes to the house of 2011," he says. Dillard says the regulation of mobile homes was spotty until 1976. That's when the federal government created national standards. Mobile homes had to be built sturdier and anchored to the ground. Regulations took another big step forward in 1994 after Hurricane Andrew. As a result, Dillard says the house built today has an excellent safety record. He even says they're just as safe as a traditional homes. Simmons, the Austin College researcher, says there's anecdotal evidence that backs up that claim. He studied an outbreak of tornadoes in Florida in 2007 that killed 21 people. "What we found in the study we conducted is that all of the fatalities that occurred in that tornado, occurred in mobile homes that were not built to the new standards or the new tie down regulation," Simmons notes. "We found no fatalities in a mobile home that was built to the higher standards." But there are a lot of mobile homes still in use that were built before stronger regulations kicked in in 1976. In fact, the National Manufactured Housing Institute estimates that of the nine million mobile homes being lived in today, about one-fifth were built before 1976. Edward Wheeler or Ellenboro bought his home new in 1998. He paid $35,000 for it. And he takes a lot of pride in his home. "This one here's 72-foot long, 14 wide. Every 16 inches it's staked in the ground 3-and-a-half-foot. Where's it gonna go?" he asks. He lives about two miles from where the twin sisters died a couple weeks ago. But he's had no problems - not even a broken window. He says it's only reinforced the confidence he has in his home.