During a devastating storm like Hurricane Irma, no one is more vulnerable than the residents of South Florida’s aluminum-and-plywood mobile home parks.
Many are old and poor. Some don’t have cars. They should all have one mission: To get out.
But not everyone can.
“We don’t know where to go,” said Valius Derival, 66, a retired construction worker who lives with his wife and two relatives in a rickety trailer at a mobile home park in Miami’s Little River. He said he didn’t know where Miami-Dade County’s storm shelters are, or how to get there.
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Few of his neighbors know they and 650,000 other people have been ordered to leave by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The order applies to coastal areas, downtown Miami and mobile homes across Miami-Dade. Similar orders were issued in Broward.
In a high-rent, low-wage community like South Florida, trailer parks expose the economic disparities that can hinder evacuation efforts. With so much news coming over smart phones, those without internet access are a step behind. Storms bring the every-day problems of poverty into sharper focus.
“Maybe we can ask a friend for a lift,” said Derival, who was chatting with neighbors on his stoop about their escape plans.
Lindsay Reiter, the property manager for the trailer park at 215 NW. 79th St., said half of the park’s roughly 230 residents plan to stay.
“I’m going to talk to the police,” Reiter said. “I want to light a fire under [the residents]. There will be casualties. These are not concrete block structures. They are drywall.”
Under the shadow of South Florida’s looming high-rises lie nearly 54,000 mobile homes: 13,000 in Miami-Dade County, 19,000 in Palm Beach and 21,500 in Broward, according to the U.S. Census. Like all neighborhoods, trailer parks aren’t monolithic. Some offer well-appointed manufactured homes. Others are ramshackle metal shacks. During Hurricane Andrew, trailer parks in South Dade were wiped off the face of the earth.
“I was here for Andrew, in this very park, and after Andrew, there was no park. You heard? No park," said Bruce Groene, who lives in the Goldcoaster, a well-kept mobile home complex between Florida City and Homestead. "There's no point in putting shutters. During Andrew, I put the shutters and my house disappeared. It's a hopeless situation. This house is made out of sticks."
Miami-Dade police say most people are leaving. Neighborhood officers conducted area checks taking polls.
"The overall feeling is that most people are going; and a lot are already gone," one officer at the Goldcoaster said.
Sticking it out
Betty Alexander, 90, isn’t one of them. Having the roof ripped off her home in 1992 makes her feel ready to stand up to Irma.
"I'm not leaving. I have food, liquor and toilet paper. I don't need much else," said Alexander, cracking a smile. "This one is built differently. I designed it myself and I know what's in it. It's as sturdy as can be.”
But even weaker storms wreak havoc on mobile home parks.
I'm not leaving. I have food, liquor and toilet paper. I don't need much else.
Betty Alexander, mobile home resident
After Hurricane Hermine, a Category 1 storm that hit Florida’s Gulf Coast last year, “mobile home parks seemed to take the biggest beating,” former Manatee County emergency management chief Don Hermey told the Bradenton Herald. Flooding ruined houses. Wind tore off roofs.
The Little River trailer park holds 77 close-packed trailers, mostly inhabited by Creole and Spanish speakers. Cats, dogs, chickens and a solitary opossum roam free. A boat-yard with two-story racks of vessels separates the park from the busy road. On a side street, a heap of trash — broken-down chairs, tables, couches — sits across from a “No Dumping” sign. Outsiders driving pick-ups like to dump garbage there, residents say.
The discarded furniture could turn into deadly projectiles in Irma’s 185 mph winds.
Felius Gerveus, 60, said he wasn’t sure if his Little River trailer would still be standing when he gets back. He plans to shelter at a North Miami church.
“I don’t got nobody to help,” Gerveus said. “Only God. You have to survive out here by yourself.”
Fight or flight
Getting out seems like common sense.
At the Moonlight Ranch — a mobile home and RV park off Griffin Road in Davie — Harriet Blackman's neighbors are gone or going soon.
Down the street, her neighbor, Rose Charron, a 59-year-old DiSalvo's waitress, is loading folded pants and t-shirts into her Ford Expedition to drive to her boyfriend's house.
"He lives behind Josie's bar, so I'm good. We've got three 12-packs for him and three bottles of wine for me," she says.
Inside, Charron's mom, Bonnie Smith, 78, is watching Irma coverage on a loop. Part of their trailer floods during decent rainstorms. Across the way, their neighbor is waiting outside with a packed suitcase.
Residents of the park, which consists of dozens of aluminum and fiberglass trailers immediately south of a retention pond and west of the Florida Turnpike, are doing what they can to keep their homes safe. But they’re worried about wind and flooding.
Irma Roldan (yes, Irma) has covered her windows with unpainted pocket fence posts. Moses Muniz has a circle saw out, cutting pieces of plywood and nailing them over his windows. He’s puffing what’s left of a Newport Gold.
But Blackman, 85, says she may stay put, simply because she doesn't know where to go. She's worries about her dog, a 10-year-old Yorkie named Jaden. And staying in a shelter is out, she says, because her body is too broken to sleep on the ground.
Her trailer, which she says was built in 1963, has been through plenty of hurricanes. But she's nervous for herself and Jaden.
"I don't want to leave him. But I don't want to die either."
While the evacuation orders — also issued for mobile homes and low-lying areas in Broward — are described as “mandatory,” people will not be forced to leave their homes. But emergency workers may not be able to reach those who stay behind. In the low-lying Florida Keys, all three hospitals are closing.
“If you stay, you think you’re a tough guy, then you’re on your own,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said Wednesday. “Don’t expect us to come get you.”
In the social media age, older and poorer residents are left behind.
“More than ever before, there’s a reliance on social media and electronics to get the word out,” said Alayne Unterberger of the nonprofit Florida Institute for Community Studies. “And this group of folks is not savvy on tech. They don’t have the access.”
Jay Baker, a retired Florida State University professor who studies public response to hurricanes, said the best way for authorities to get people out is to knock on doors and explain the danger. In crowded neighborhoods, announcing evacuations on a loudspeaker can help, too.
“People simply underestimate the danger they are in,” Baker said.
After they leave, more problems await: Many residents also can’t afford to buy the supplies necessary to wait out the storm.
“The only thing I’m taking,” said José Rivera, 87, of Little River, “are my three little dogs.”