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Project Hopes To Bolster Mobile Home Communities Against Disasters

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Intern trailers at the White River National Fish Hatchery grounds are flooded by rising water during Hurricane Irene.

Long before Tropical Storm Irene, University of Vermont professor Dan Baker and other community planning researchers were concerned about the vulnerability of Vermont’s mobile homes to floods and other emergency events.

When Irene descended on Vermont in August of 2011, Baker's worst fears were realized: the storm destroyed 133 mobile homes in designated parks, and many others outside of them. The only silver lining from the event was that UVM researchers received additional federal and local funding to keep their research going.

A big part of the work is getting more people who actually live in mobile home parks involved in prevention efforts before the next natural disaster.

Many homes at risk

Baker says the problem is compounded by poor placement of mobile homes. 

“The vast majority of Vermont’s mobile home parks were built before the state adopted Act 250, the states of land use planning law,” says Baker, an associate professor of Community and International Development at the University of Vermont.

“So most of our parks, about 65 percent, are in areas that probably would not be permitted today. So we've got an existing situation that's actually getting worse with climate change and increased flooding.”

While only 7 percent of the state's housing is mobile homes, these residents sustained about 15 percent of the damages to homes from Tropical Storm Irene.

Even with the reality of many homes parked in flood plains, Baker says there are many low-hanging fruit that mobile home parks can tackle to build resilience before the next storm hits. Ideally, all parks should have more than one entry/exit point, in case roads become impassible with tree fall or flooding. Fuel tanks and mobile homes themselves should be anchored to the ground to prevent uprooting during harsh winds.

“Many town emergency plans overlook the mobile home parks in their towns,” says Baker. “We’d like emergency planners to recognize that mobile home parks are often vulnerable communities, whether they’re vulnerable because of high percentage of elderly people or because of being located in a flood hazard area.”

Organizing in advance

The key, says Baker, is to make emergency plans and do a dry run-through long before disaster strikes.

With support from the EPA and Vermont Community Foundation, Baker’s team is now developing mobile home park emergency plans with local residents in parks.

“We identify a person who is going to be a communications person within the park and the person who's going to be communicating with emergency planners outside the park,” says Baker.

He says they also identify someone who will coordinate care for pets. Then the whole team gets together to run through a test emergency scenario.

“We just we play that scenario out with the park,” says Baker. “How would you let residents know what they should be doing to protect themselves? How would you handle an evacuation? Where would you go? How would you handle changing information?”

Why not move?

Baker says his team’s analysis found about one-third of parks have some portion of land in a flood hazard area, and 20 percent of all parks have at least one lot in a flood hazard area.

“But the relocation of mobile home parks is very very expensive, both in terms of the actual cash outlay but also in terms of the social dislocation,” says Baker.

It’s challenging to find available land, and frequently there’s not available land in the community where the citizen already lives. 

“The other thing about many mobile home park communities is that they are communities, and people know and like their neighbors, they want to continue living where they're living,” says Baker.

“Many folks living in parks basically grew up in that area. They don't want to move far away.”

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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