Tornado shelter rules leave some without refuge

Lulu Lourdes gets nervous every year at this time. The mother of three has lived for 10 years at the Shady Lane Mobile Home Court, a collection of mobile homes at 4124 S. Broadway that has no storm shelter.

It didn't take the recent tornado devastation in the South to alarm her.

"We need a basement, a shelter, or something," she said. "In a tornado, we're scared. We run everywhere."

About half of all tornado fatalities in the United States are mobile home dwellers, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

And yet, most mobile home parks in Wichita and Sedgwick County are exempt from decade-old regulations mandating shelters.

Of the roughly 200 licensed parks in the city, 140 are small enough that they don't come under a 1994 shelter ordinance, city officials said.

That ordinance required parks of at least 20 homes to build new shelters, or ensure that existing ones meet certain codes.

About 41 parks have 20 to 80 homes, according to the city. Seventeen or 18 have more than 100.

The ordinance also required shelters to be built in parks of 10 or more homes that were built after the ordinance was passed, and in any existing parks that added 10 or more units.

The county's storm shelter resolution, passed in 2000, required all new parks of at least 10 lots to have shelters, but it excluded all existing parks, unless they added 10 or more lots.

That resolution was passed a year after a tornado tore through Haysville and south Wichita, killing five people — two in adjacent mobile home parks — and injuring nearly 150.

The two parks had shelters that met city codes. One man died after he couldn't open the door to a shelter. Another died at his home.

Some people who live in shelterless mobile home parks have simply decided over the years to push aside thoughts of tornadoes.

"If it happens there's nothing I can do about it. I just put everything in Jehovah God's hands and go on about my business." said Billie Marie Jacoby, an elderly resident in a park on South Broadway that has no shelter.

All parks mandated by the city's ordinance to have shelters do have them, said Kurt Schroeder, superintendent of central inspection.

Some had a hard time raising money to get it done after the ordinance was passed, he said.

"We didn't have to fight with too many people, although we did take a few property owners to court," he said.

The city inspects its licensed parks annually, and the inspections include shelters. The city also responds to complaints about a shelter's condition, lack of access or other concerns, Schroeder said.

In the county, there are 17 mobile home parks in unincorporated areas, all built before the 2000 resolution and therefore exempt. Some already had shelters, said Glen Wiltse, the county's director of code enforcement.

Many parks that used to be in the county have been annexed into cities, and are no longer within the county's jurisdiction, he said.

Some parks' shelters are not open to the public at all times because of the threat of vandalism, he said.

"That's one of the big issues with the shelters when they're left open," Wiltse said.

Park managers have to unlock them in inclement weather, if residents don't have keys. Giving keys to residents can create other problems.

"Sometimes the shelters become a haven for people to get in and mess around," Wiltse said.

Regulations vary

Neither the city nor the county have community storm shelters, leaving it up to people to figure out where to go on their own.

But Minnesota, for example, requires the owners of mobile home parks with more than 10 units to have storm shelters. Those with less than 10 units have to develop an evacuation plan and have it approved by the city.

Cities and counties surrounding Sedgwick County have a mix of shelter requirements, and some don't have any.

Andover, where 13 of the 17 people who died in its 1991 tornado lived in a mobile home park, doesn't have an ordinance requiring its mobile home parks to have shelters.

"There have been questions about that in the past. It would be something to think about, for sure," said Kirk Crisp, the city's building official.

The city's parks have them, anyway, he said.

Hesston's zoning regulations required shelters in mobile home parks years before a 1990 tornado ripped through the town, said John Carder, Hesston city administrator.

That tornado struck the middle of town, missing the only mobile home park by 10 blocks.

Butler County requires storm shelters in any new parks, but not in existing parks, said Rod Compton, director of planning and zoning.

"Most everybody in our county has some type of shelter," said Jim Schmidt, the county's emergency management director.

There haven't been any major tornadoes in the county since the 1991 Andover tornado, he said.

There is no ordinance requiring shelters in unincorporated Harvey County mobile home parks, and the city of Newton doesn't have one, either, although two of the four parks in the city have shelters, said Mark Jenkins, Newton's building and zoning administrator.

"It'd definitely be something to think about," he said.

James Fair, emergency management director for Sumner County, said the few mobile home parks in his county provide shelters either on-site or in the immediate area.

The county's mobile homes have been lucky. The only significant damage Fair could recall happened in 2004 when a tornado destroyed a double-wide near Conway Springs.

A woman was asleep inside her home and didn't know about the storm. She rode it out, suffering only minor injuries, Fair said.

Awareness, escape plans recommended

Safety experts recommend residents of mobile homes where shelters aren't available scout nearby sturdy structures, have an escape plan, then pay attention to weather reports and get out early in tornado conditions.

"You need to have a much higher level of awareness of the occurrence of severe weather, and you need to seek shelter earlier than other folks," said Randy Duncan, Sedgwick County Emergency Management director.

Jesus Velo, who lives at Hidden Park near 37th Street North and Arkansas, said that when a tornado was reported near his previous mobile home, he went to the basement of his sister's house nearby.

Now, Velo doesn't have an evacuation plan. He said he would get into the closet and lie down if a tornado approached his neighborhood.

"It would be better if they could put a shelter here," he said.

Brenda Magnuson, who lives in a South Broadway park that has no shelter, tracks weather on television, but worries this time every year.

"I say my prayers that God will protect us every night," she said.

Living in a home in a small park tucked into the shadow of the I-235 bypass near South Broadway, Vicki Lisniak feels safe.

She saw a tornado jump the bypass and come down again on the other side of Broadway, she said.

She would try make it to the ditch behind the park if she had to, she said. But for the most part, Lisniak said, she and other residents of the park are fatalistic.

"We just take it as it is, really," she said. "If it's our time, it's our time."