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Mobile Homes Draw New Scrutiny After Hurricane, Tornadoes

October 12, 1992

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) _ Tom Beauregard shoved what was left from his home into a plastic bag, threw it into the trunk of his car and took his final look at the trailer park where he had lived for five years.

The park looked as if a giant toddler had thrown a tantrum, stomping, ripping and tossing around dozens of mobile homes.

He always knew his home could be vulnerable in a storm, but ...

″Who would have ever expected anything like this?″ asked Beauregard, 55, who is moving to Winter Park to start over after being wiped out by Hurricane Andrew on Aug. 24.

His mobile home was one of more than 8,300 wrecked by Andrew. Then, on Oct. 3, tornadoes pounded hundreds more mobile homes in the Tampa Bay area.

The storms are bringing new scrutiny to mobile homes, which have sprouted across the Florida landscape like silver-topped palmetto scrubs.

The City Council a week ago put a six-month moratorium on permits for new mobile homes, saying it wanted to await the outcome of a federal review and possibly tougher safety standards.

″We are trying to afford the people who choose to live in mobile homes the same degree of safety standards that their neighbors on site-built homes enjoy,″ Mayor Tad DeMilly said Friday. ″We’re not banning these folks from Homestead.″

″I don’t know what I’m going to do,″ said Elvira Borja, a mother of three children, said after the council vote. ″I bought a mobile home because that’s all I could afford.″

Many mobile-home owners said it makes no sense to single them out. Beauregard, for example, took refuge in his girlfriend’s house in nearby Redland; it was destroyed.

In neighboring Florida City, Paul and Wyona Serenceses left their trailer home during the storm. They said they thought they were going to die inside a nearby motel, which was heavily damaged.

″There is nothing that could have stood this thing,″ Mrs. Serenceses said.

They moved back home the night after the storm, surrounded by the shredded homes of their neighbors. Their roof was torn away, but the floor, bedroom and bathroom were intact. They built a wooden lean-to for a living room to await slow-coming federal emergency aid. They plan to buy a new mobile home.

″The mobile homes are just as safe as the homes they’re building right now. If they’re anchored right and built right,″ Serenceses said.

Industry officials have said that drastically increasing standards would add significantly to the cost of mobile homes, which usually sell for $10,000 to $30,000. Andrew, with gusts to 175 mph, was the third-most intense hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland this century.

Mobile homes are popular with new families and retirees on fixed incomes, offering an affordable way to live in the Sunshine State. The 1990 census recorded 762,855 occupied mobile homes in Florida, the most in the nation.

Frank Williams, executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, said there has been an ″emotional knee-jerk reaction″ since the hurricane that isn’t taking into account the large number of people who need the alternative of a mobile home.

For Beauregard, an unemployed bar manager, the seven-room mobile home was a cheap and cozy place to live. He and his wife - who died last year - moved here eight years ago after suffering losses in the restaurant business in New York and a house fire in the Florida Keys.

″A lot of people are going to be hurting if they ban mobile homes, because they can’t afford anything else,″ said Beauregard, who left behind uninsured losses of about $30,000.

Rep. Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, chairman of a subcommittee that oversees the mobile home industry, plans to hold hearings later this year. He said the storm damage indicates that manufacturing standards for mobile homes are inadequate.

Housing and Urban Development standards say mobile homes in coastal areas must withstand pressure that HUD says amounts to about 110 mph winds. But some researchers contend the HUD standards provide protection against only 80 mph winds.

HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who has toured Dade County and the Pinellas County area hit by tornadoes, said last week that mobile homes ″can’t withstand 160 mph winds, but Homestead Air Force Base could not withstand 160 mph winds, so we shouldn’t blame only the mobile home residences. We’ve got to be very careful.″

Kemp said a full-scale review of his agency’s standards is under way.

There are few signs that the storms have scared away mobile-home buyers. Industry officials said demand is up nationally, and the Serenceses said they found empty sales lot after empty sales lot in their search for a replacement.

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