Hurricane Irma exacts heavy toll on Florida's mobile homes

The severely damaged Sea Breeze Mobile Home Park complex is shown following powerful Hurricane Irma on Sept 12, 2017 in Islamorada, a village encompassing six of the Florida Keys. — AFP
The severely damaged Sea Breeze Mobile Home Park complex is shown following powerful Hurricane Irma on Sept 12, 2017 in Islamorada, a village encompassing six of the Florida Keys. — AFP
A submerged mobile home community stands in Fort Myers two days after Hurricane Irma swept through the area on Sept 12, 2017 in Fort Myers Florida. — AFP

TWISTED pieces of aluminum roofing litter Donald Larcom's yard, but the retiree says he doesn't even know which house it came from. The Florida mobile home park where he lives was devastated by Hurricane Irma.

The storm's fierce winds tore apart some of these small, prefabricated homes, which line what were tidy lawns in this neighbourhood.

Now, the streets are covered with floodwaters dotted with floating pieces of particleboard and Styrofoam, and not many trees are left standing.

Mobile homes were a particular worry as Irma approached Florida, as they are simply placed on bricks or cinder blocks, then anchored to the ground. They can be quickly dismantled or moved onto the back of a large truck.

Mobile home parks can be found in nearly every American city, and are often filled with working class families. In holiday destinations, these neighbourhoods are popular among retirees enjoying the quiet years of their life.

Larcom and his wife Marie live in the "Enchanted Shores" mobile home park, in the seaside city of Naples away from the historical centre where upscale mansions are found. There are no young families or children here, the only residents are 55 or older.

With streets named after precious stones like amethyst, sapphire and turquoise, two-thirds of the homes here are occupied only from November to Easter, when retired Americans who live in the northern parts of the country flock south to enjoy Florida's mild winter weather.

Designed for storms

Some of these "snowbirds", as they are known, will have to give up their little winter havens after Irma's battering. But others, like the Larcoms, were lucky, making it through the storm without major damage.

As Donald Larcom explains, the older homes did not survive because they weren't built to withstand major hurricanes.

"From the early 1990s to after (1992 hurricane) Andrew went through, they just doubled everything" in terms of strength, he said, noting that wooden rods used in the frames are now triple the thickness of pre-1990s construction.

Homes from the 1990s and later are built to withstand winds of up to 110 miles per hour (177kph), he said.

But Irma sometimes exceeded those speeds as it cut a deadly path from the Caribbean through the southeastern United States. By Tuesday, Irma had dissipated, though parts of the US remained flooded and millions were without power.

Larcom, who worked for 32 years at General Motors, estimates that his mobile home weighs 15 to 20 tonnes but "it's nothing when they get a 130, 140 or 150 mile an hour wind."

A neighbour's home, which looks like a traditional house, was knocked on its side. And not everyone has insurance to cover hurricane damage, which is expensive.

As Irma approached, the Larcoms fled Enchanted Shores for safety, taking their valuables with them.

"I was sick. I am thinking I come home and my little house is gonna be gone," Donald Larcom said, confessing that he burst into tears when he found it still standing.

'Well-blessed'

Stasia Walsh, 77, who didn't have any place to go, remained in her prefabricated home throughout the raging hurricane.

Following directions broadcast on their battery-powered radio, she and her husband huddled in the centre of their mobile home, which in this case was a closet that they padded with a mattress.

The couple had placed metal storm shutters over their windows but could hear the wind literally tearing apart the awning over their parking spot.

Ultimately their three-room home – which has double anchors thanks to a state program – survived intact.

"I feel very well-blessed from God, for him to give us this experience, and to be able to survive and live through this," she said. — AFP