Lawmakers Eye Tornado Shelters for Trailer Parks in Oklahoma

By | September 17, 2009

Prompted by a deadly February tornado in southern Oklahoma, a state House panel on Tuesday examined ways to increase the number of tornado shelters at mobile home parks.

Reps. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, and Samson Buck, D-Ardmore, represent the area where a Feb. 10 nighttime twister ripped through homes and businesses, killing eight people and injuring dozens of others. Four of those killed lived in mobile homes.

“Words cannot really express the damage that was done,” Buck said in describing the wreckage at the Bar K Trailer Park in Lone Grove where three bodies were recovered. “You couldn’t even tell that it was a mobile home park after the tornado ripped through there.”

Bar K manager John Bowman told members of the General Government committee that only four of the park’s 41 homes were left standing after the storm. The park had no tornado shelter, he said.

Bowman said he and the park owner looked into building a large underground shelter that holds 75 people, but the cost estimate was nearly $300,000. He said smaller shelters that hold up to 12 people could be strategically placed in the park for about $3,000 each.

But Bowman said it would be difficult for residents or park owners to absorb the cost without a rebate or tax incentive.

“A lot of small parks can’t afford these shelters,” he said.

Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said the state implemented grant programs to reimburse residents for a portion of the cost of building shelters after major tornado outbreaks in 1999 and 2003, but those programs have since expired.

Ashwood said federal money appropriated to states after emergency declarations cannot be spent on private businesses, like mobile home parks. He said such “mitigation funds” in Oklahoma have been used to build 72 safe rooms in public schools during the last several years.

Ashwood said he always has opposed building large, community shelters because residents frequently don’t have time to get into them. But he said he likes the idea of small shelters strategically placed in mobile home parks,

After the meeting, Ownbey said he and Buck hope to draft a bill for the upcoming session that would provide tax incentives for building shelters or possibly require mobile home parks to install them.

At least one other state, Minnesota, requires all state-licensed manufactured home communities to have a storm shelter or a detailed evacuation plan, depending on how many residents live there, said Margaret Kaplan, former legal director for the All Parks Alliance for Change, a nonprofit tenants union for residents of Minnesota’s manufactured home parks.

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