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updated: 4/16/2017 7:41 AM

When a tornado looms, many residents of trailer parks are on their own

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  • Video: Shelter from tornados

  • The Oasis Mobile Home Park in Des Plaines has no storm shelter on the property. Clinton and Laurie Brookshire said they would stay put with their bearded dragon, Spike, in their mobile home.

      The Oasis Mobile Home Park in Des Plaines has no storm shelter on the property. Clinton and Laurie Brookshire said they would stay put with their bearded dragon, Spike, in their mobile home.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Oasis resident Roger Knutson asked to build a basement under his home. The request was denied.

      Oasis resident Roger Knutson asked to build a basement under his home. The request was denied.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Dick Stilin, 81, heads for a hospital parking garage when dangerous weather looms. There is no storm shelter at Pleasant Ridge mobile home park in West Chicago where he lives.

      Dick Stilin, 81, heads for a hospital parking garage when dangerous weather looms. There is no storm shelter at Pleasant Ridge mobile home park in West Chicago where he lives.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Rosalba Medialdea's safety plan at Pleasant Ridge in West Chicago is to wait for one of her sons to pick her up and take her to better shelter.

      Rosalba Medialdea's safety plan at Pleasant Ridge in West Chicago is to wait for one of her sons to pick her up and take her to better shelter.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • This is a shelter built for a mobile home park in Rossville, Georgia.

    This is a shelter built for a mobile home park in Rossville, Georgia.
    Associated Press

 
 

When the tornado sirens blare, people are told to seek shelter in their basements or behind a sturdy interior wall.

But for people who live in mobile home parks, that's not an option. So, Dick Stilin, an 81-year-old Marine veteran, hops in his car and drives a mile south to Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, seeking refuge in its concrete parking garage.

"Some people smile and say you don't have to go anywhere," Stilin said of his neighbors at the 142-unit Pleasant Ridge mobile home park in West Chicago. "We don't take any chances. If I have to sit up there two to three hours, I'll do it."

Stilin's abundance of caution is smart: People who live in trailers and mobile homes are especially vulnerable to tornadoes. Since 1950, 141 Illinois residents have been killed by tornadoes; about half of them lived in trailers or mobile homes, according to Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Yet despite the threat that tornadoes pose, there are no state laws or suburban county ordinances requiring trailer parks and mobile home parks to provide storm shelters or other safety measures. Instead, the burden of surviving severe weather often is placed on residents, who are expected to either flee their home at the first sign of trouble or hope the storms miss them.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of the state passing a trailer park shelter law is the lack of federal and state funding, said Frank Bowman, the executive director of the Illinois Manufactured Housing Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of trailer park operators across the state.

"It would depend on where the money's coming from," Bowman said.

Creative solutions

The lack of tornado safety rules hasn't kept some suburban mobile park operators from being creative when trying to protect their residents.

Spring Lake Mobile Home Estates in Bartlett has an on-site office building with a basement. Jodi Reese, whose family owns the park, said several residents have keys to the building so they can open it for everyone in case of dangerous weather.

"When we have tornado or severe weather watches, I try to get it posted on our Facebook so residents know to keep an eye on the weather," Reese said. "Then they'll know someone will be opening the door."

Joe Bond, property manager at Royal Oaks Mobile Home Park in Crystal Lake, says the 150 residents of the park have access to three nearby permanent buildings, including a two-story cinder block building with a sturdy central hallway and a reinforced garage. Residents also can seek shelter in one of two underground 16-by-16-foot well containment units.

Bond said he wishes there were rules and regulations for tornado safety.

"It shouldn't be left up to the individual parks," Bond said. "Yes, it's expensive, but what's the life of a child worth?"

Sobering anniversary

No specific days mark tornado season, but in Illinois, the greatest danger typically is from now through May. Another reason to take heed of the weather is that the Chicago area is just northeast of what meteorologists consider a "tornado alley."

In fact, Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of the area's worst tornado outbreak. On April 21, 1967, a series of twisters touched down across northeastern Illinois, killing 33 people. Communities hardest hit included Belvedere, Barrington Hills, Lake Zurich, Oak Lawn and Woodstock.

The worst storm of the day, weather watchers say, threw 25 to 40 cars in all directions near 95th Street and Southwest Highway, hitting Oak Lawn Community High School and Airway Manufactured Housing Community in Oak Lawn, about a mile and a hallf away.

Mike Fiala, who manages Airway, said no one who lives there now was around back then and all traces of the damage are long gone.

Under a mattress

Despite the danger to mobile home parks, some people who live in them don't have a plan for dangerous weather. Nor have all trailer park operators provided one.

Clinton and Laurie Brookshire live in Oasis Mobile Home Park in Des Plaines and said sometimes when the wind is howling during a storm they can feel their trailer jerking back and forth.

A recent storm, Laurie said, picked up and smashed a yard gazebo they'd staked into the ground.

The Brookshires said they've never been given instructions by Oasis management on what to do when severe weather strikes. A neighbor, Roger Knutson, said his request to dig a basement under his trailer -- in part so he'd have somewhere to go if a tornado struck -- was denied.

"Now I'd go to the east part of my house where there's a walk-in closet with no windows and I'd just get underneath my king-size mattress," he said.

At Pleasant Ridge mobile home park in West Chicago, resident Rosalba Medialdea said she hopes her adult sons will come to get her to safety if the weather gets bad -- as they've done before. If that fails, she said she isn't sure what she'd do.

Adrianna Kaplan, who lives down the street, said she would probably hide under a heavy glass table if a tornado came. Kaplan said she hasn't ever been told what the severe weather plan is in the month she's lived at Pleasant Ridge, and she said it makes her angry that trailer parks aren't required to have storm shelters.

"Particularly when you have handicapped people and people who are over 55 years old," Kaplan said. "I don't know what will happen to them."

Calls for comment to Oasis and Pleasant Ridge management were not returned.

Get out!

Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said people living in trailer parks should leave their homes as soon as severe storm or tornado watches are issued and head to a safe place, such as a friend's house with a basement or another sturdy building. It's especially important to use weather radios to be aware of the conditions.

"Weather radios make a really loud sound when a warning's been issued in the area," she said. "But that's almost too late for people in mobile homes. They really need to be looking for a safer place even when there's just a watch out."

Thompson said their recommendations are based on the consensus from the weather science community including the National Weather Service.

Chris Miller, a weather service meteorologist, said he's seen how much worse the damage from tornadoes to trailers can be. Miller said last March he was inspecting the damage done by a downstate tornado that struck both a conventional home with a foundation and a nearby trailer.

"The home had broken windows, the shingles came off the roof, and a big swing set had been blown over," Miller said. "The same tornado hit a manufactured home, it didn't change in intensity, and the entire roof was torn off, one wall was blown out and it was a total loss."

Bowman, of the manufactured housing group, said modern manufactured homes hold up better to intense winds than they did before sweeping safety standards were mandated in the 1970s. Still, he said, the safest place for residents to be is below-ground or in other appropriate shelters.

Stilin, the prepared former Marine, said if he wasn't able to get out of the park to the safety of the hospital parking garage, his options become very limited.

"I think I'd dig myself a hole as fast as I could," he said. "Or I think I'd run to the river."

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