Do hurricanes make trailer parks too risky?

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Shawn Hunte figured he would weather Hurricane Ian the same way he weathered countless storms as a shrimper on the flooded, tilted decks of bucking boats in high seas.

But Ian was “Mother Nature kicking ass,” he said. It swept him in a raging current through his San Carlos Island trailer park to the top of a 15-foot tree, where he clung to the trunk for three hours as a fleet of runaway boats from an adjacent marina floated by.

“I took a beating up there,” Hunte said, pointing to a denuded royal poinciana and an upended Jacuzzi that he used as a platform when it became wedged in the branches while he wielded a leather couch cushion as a shield against flying debris. “The water rose so rapidly, and when it was up to our necks we jumped out the door, grabbed whatever we could find and held on ’til kingdom come. And it almost did, man, it almost did.”

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Hunte’s story of survival was even more incredible given the demolished state of the trailer park surrounding him. He and his 77-year-old uncle live in a 36-foot Jayco camper in Sunnyland — nicknamed “Moneyland” by its working-class residents — hard by Hurricane Bay and the bridge to Fort Myers Beach.

Like the hundreds of mobile home parks dotting Southwest Florida, Sunnyland’s collection of motley, immobile trailers and RVs was not built to withstand the 150 mph winds and 10 to 12 feet of storm surge that slammed coastal communities last Wednesday. The wreckage was testament to their vulnerability: They are sitting ducks during hurricane season.

While construction standards were toughened for flimsy mobile homes that failed 30 years ago during Hurricane Andrew, Ian was a Category 4 monster that caused unprecedented flooding. In the aftermath of Ian, as in the aftermath of every major storm, the damage in trailer parks like Sunnyland is extreme.

The question of whether to rebuild the fragile communities hung in the air, as palpable as the odor of fetid saltwater. Should dangerous older parks be phased out — particularly in high-risk coastal areas? Or should a vital source of affordable housing for retirees, service industry employees and agricultural workers be preserved — but built back stronger?

Ian will renew the debate over what to do about a style of living that is both famous and infamous in Florida. There are more than 800,000 mobile or manufactured homes in the state housing 12 percent of the population and about 37,500 in Lee County alone, where 54 deaths, most by drowning, had been reported as of Monday.

Hunte would like to stay here, even after his harrowing experience during Ian.

“I am not optimistic someone will give me a mansion so we will pick up the pieces because I have no other option,” said Hunte, 55. A day after Ian he was subsisting on water from coconuts he had cut open and walking through slimy muck in his white fishing boots to check on neighbors and search for bottled water, food and cigarettes. His 23-year-old camper was uninhabitable. His half-buried Grand Marquis was inoperative. Barbecue grills, TV satellite dishes, velour recliners, bikes and kitchen utensils sat in brown puddles.

“This is a place we’ve come to know and love, and we can walk to work — or could,” he said, gesturing toward 70-foot commercial shrimp boats flung on top of a trailer park across the street. “We’re supplying the seafood for Florida so we deserve a place to live here.”

Neighbor Ed Madden, who worked at the Dairy Queen in ravaged Fort Myers Beach, said he also wants to rebuild or replace his trailer, which he described as “trashed.”

“We can create a new Fort Myers Beach and tourists will want to visit even more,” said Madden, 60. “But we’ll need help.”

Temporary help is on the way but permanent homes for trailer park refugees will not be easy to find due to Florida’s acute shortage of affordable housing.

“Residents in a place like Sunnyland, who live in housing of last resort, really have nowhere to go,” said Gladys Cook, director of resilience and recovery for the Florida Housing Coalition. “These folks will end up in FEMA trailers if they are lucky for up to 18 months while housing providers work to get them something else. Florida is well-rehearsed on how to provide temporary housing. After that, we do not have enough good solutions.”

During Florida’s boom cycles, mobile home parks proliferated, and as Florida real estate prices rose, the parks became even more attractive to people on low or fixed incomes. The names are alluring: Tropicana Sands, Horizon Village, Orange Harbor, Jamaica Bay, Sun-N-Fun. The prices are enticing.

Among the 205 listings on — touted as “Retirement Paradise!” or “Florida Dream Home!” or “So Much For So Little!” — are a variety of homes for sale for under $200,000 and for rent for under $2,500: A 2-bedroom, 2-bath in Estero Bay Village for $139,900; a 12-by-40-foot 1-1.5 for $117,000 in Indian Creek in Fort Myers Beach; an 11-by-33 foot 1-1 in Siesta Bay in Fort Myers for $82,500; a Matlacha “Waterfront!” 1-1 for $52,000, and a 2-2 in River’s Edge in North Fort Myers for $17,500.

All these areas were inundated with storm surge.

In Placida near Punta Gorda, Gasparilla Mobile Estates was wiped out, according to manager Joe Caryl, who has lived there since 2013. The roof on his 1969 mobile home peeled off in winds that “spun over us for six to eight hours,” he said. “If it had blown through like Irma, we would have lost a couple car ports and would be cleaned up in three months. But this was a once-in-100-years storm.”

Of 178 units, 90 percent are totaled, he said. Some wound up in Coral Creek.

“One guy stayed, even though I tried to get him out, and it’s amazing he didn’t die,” Caryl said. “I thought I’d find parts of him but when I went back the next day and yelled, ‘Hey, Scott,’ he came off his couch in his underwear.”

Most of the trailers in Gasparilla Estates were older models from the 1960s and 1970s. The destruction caused by 1992’s Andrew in trailer parks in Homestead and Florida City was a catalyst for new industry standards and zoning laws that fortified manufactured homes.

“New ones are much sturdier and have to be built 6 to 7 feet off the ground, with anchors, secure roofing, hurricane windows and doors,” Caryl said. “Repairs have to be up to today’s code for Wind Zone 3, and you’re required to do specific things to keep the flood insurance rates down.”

Caryl is an advocate of the parks as a source of equitable housing in a state with a growing gap between the wealthy and blue-collar.

“It’s affordable housing for low-income people who should have an opportunity to live in places like this and not just rich people,” Caryl said. “They’re comfortable, the residents are like family. I think they are great and should stay.”

Jimmy Buffett once maligned mobile homes “smotherin’ my Keys” in his song “Migration,” and wished a summer squall would blow them away: “They’re ugly and square, they don’t belong here. They look a lot better as beer cans.” Residents say they’re used to the “trailer trash” stereotypes.

But since post-Andrew revelations of shoddy construction, the manufactured housing industry has improved the integrity of homes and cities have implemented more restrictive building and zoning codes.

“Anything built after Hurricane Andrew since 1994 or rebuilt after Hurricane Charley since 2004 has to comply with current codes,” Cook said of the housing coalition. “The old parks were never considered permanent for land use and they’ve become non-conforming and obsolete. The idea is to continue replacing them.”

Decrepit RVs — not the luxury kind parked in gated RV resorts where lots sell for upwards of $350,000 — also have multiplied as a source of permanent housing as workforce wages have failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing cost of living, squeezing people out of residential and rental markets. COVID brought newcomers to Florida, exacerbating competition for reasonably priced housing, Cook said.

“RVs are considered transitory but they have become homes,” Cook said. “They share space in some of the parks, and a lot of them can’t be driven. They don’t move, so people lose them in a storm.”

In Lee County, population 737,000, about 45,700 people have a housing cost burden that is 30 to 50 percent of their income and 41,200 people pay housing costs that are more than 50 percent of their income, according to the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida. Miami-Dade County, population 2.6 million, has 12,638 mobile home units, and 442,265 people spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs.

Trailer parks sitting on valuable land are disappearing as park owners sell to developers and sites on the water are particularly attractive for upscale projects.

“We would like to see all the parks taken out of the speculative real estate market and used for affordable and workforce housing that is strong and resilient,” said Jaimie Ross, CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition. “There’s nothing wrong with manufactured housing built to today’s hurricane standards except that thousands of people are being displaced when owners sell the property for redevelopment. If it’s not built to current standards, you’re looking at a double whammy of vulnerability.

“Too many people in today’s mobile home parks will be tomorrow’s homeless people.”

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