July 7, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

It is conventional wisdom that when tropical storms like Elsa blow in, you do not want to be living in a mobile home. How many times have we done stories about storm damage that focused on the debris that used to be a mobile home park?

But is it true that mobile homes are less safe in storms? The answer is, like most nuanced answers, it depends.

The Manufactured Housing Institute provides this data:

  • Manufactured housing provides quality, affordable housing for more than 22 million very low-, low- and moderate-income Americans. Based on U.S. Census data, the average price per square foot of a manufactured home is $50, compared to $111 for a site-built home.
  • The median annual income of manufactured homeowners is about $26,000.
  • Manufactured housing represents 7.3 percent of all occupied housing units, and 10.3 percent of all occupied single-family detached housing.

The Florida Manufactured Housing Association says, “One of every five new homes sold in Florida is a factory-built home.”

One consideration: When was the structure built?

At last count, Florida had about 828,000 mobile homes. More than 600,000 of them are older homes, meaning they were not built to current hurricane standards. That is critically important when you understand how building standards for all homes, mobile and otherwise, have changed in recent decades.

In many ways, mobile homes still suffer from the stigma of homes built prior to June 15, 1974, when Congress passed the first safety act that regulated mobile homes.

Richard Jennison, formerly the president and CEO of the Manufactured Housing Institute, the national trade association for the factory-built housing industry, said in 2016, “The standards for manufactured housing are subject to robust compliance and quality assurance regulations, sometimes more stringent than those for traditional site-built homes.”

The MHI adds: “In areas prone to hurricane-force winds (Wind Zones II and III) of the HUD Basic Wind Zone Map, the standards for manufactured homes are equivalent to the current regional and national building codes for site-built homes. Manufactured homes are designed to withstand wind speeds of 100 miles per hour in Wind Zone 2 and 110 miles per hour in Wind Zone 3.”

This is the national wind zone map to which they refer:

(Manufactured Housing Institute)

Generally, each step up in zones requires several thousand dollars in increased costs to meet the higher building standards.

Even in Florida, zones differ by whether the county they are in is coastal or if inland. The southern tip of the state is different from the rest of the state. There is also a special category for manufactured homes that are sited within 1,500 feet of the coastline in hurricane-prone areas of the country. These are called “D-sticker” homes, which means they have been designed to meet an even higher wind resistance requirement.

Another consideration: How is the home built? What kind of foundation does it use and is it anchored?

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed an estimated 90% of mobile homes in Southern Dade County. Back then, mobile homes that were anchored at all were anchored by driving a rod into the ground and then connecting that rod to the home’s frame. After Hurricane Andrew, hurricane standards called for straps to go over the top of mobile homes that secure them to the ground. In fact, it is difficult to get insurance if you do not use over-the-top anchors, so a lot of people living in mobile homes don’t have insurance.

Manufactured housing companies often refer to this 2014 test from the American Modern Insurance Group (see video) in which they tested homes to see how they would hold up in high winds. The tests showed that it was not the homes themselves that were failing, it was largely the fault of attachments that people had bolted to their mobile home. These include awnings and garages that tend to catch gusts of wind like a parachute and rip roofs off homes. The study recommended that mobile home owners replace the attachments with construction that meets the more stringent building requirements.

A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gives us a look at mobile home deaths versus deaths in conventional homes. Even this data does not take into account the fact that a greater percentage of people who live in tornado-prone areas also live in mobile homes. Still, the study shows there is a significantly greater percentage of deaths in mobile homes compared to conventional homes. Somewhere between 7% and 10% of homes are mobile homes but they averaged 42% of deaths in this time period:

(Modular Today)

Just as journalists once paid attention to how often people who were not wearing seatbelts died in car crashes and often report when people who have no smoke detectors die in house fires, it seems that it would be a big public service to report when mobile homes that are not properly anchored are destroyed. For example, in 2019, when 23 people in Alabama died when storms destroyed mobile homes, journalists reported that improperly anchored mobile homes were involved in 19 of those deaths.

Why are drownings increasing? There is a post-COVID connection

Lifeguard Maggie Storti, left, keeps an eye on visitors to the North Boundary Park swimming pool and waterpark, as temperatures hit over 90 degrees Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Cranberry Township, Pa., Butler County. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Look at this data from the Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital in Orlando, where, this year, they have seen double the number of nonfatal drownings compared to the last three years. It seems that post-COVID-19 gatherings and vacations are luring people into the water.

MLive in Michigan reports:

After a record year for drownings in Lake Michigan in 2020, the number of drownings in the lake and across the Great Lakes waterways are up year over year as of July 4, 2021.

To date, there have been 32 drownings in the Great Lakes, compared to 25 as of July 4, 2020. Of those, 15 drownings have occurred this year in Lake Michigan, compared to 12 a year ago, according to data provided by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

It is a similar story in Massachusetts.

It may surprise you to know that most child drownings do not occur when children are swimming unsupervised. The American Academy of Pediatrics says one rule — the arm’s length rule — would prevent a lot of problems. It means an adult should be within an arm’s length of a child swimming.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for kids age 1 to 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An NPR story that is loaded with great reminders includes this passage, which my parents certainly never followed and makes me feel that my kids must have had good luck because I didn’t rigorously follow these guidelines, either:

And if you’re the adult in charge, doing anything that draws your eyes away from the water for just a moment is risky. Reading, using your phone in any capacity, socializing, fiddling with the Bluetooth speaker or doing household chores — all such lapses are dangerous when children are swimming or playing in water. Drowning accidents have happened in the time it takes for a caretaker to run inside just long enough to put wet clothes in the dryer, or while they were looking on from a kitchen window and doing dishes. No distraction is quick enough to be safe when it comes to kids in or around water — not seconds, not minutes.

This report from the World Health Organization caught my attention. It says that worldwide, drowning is one of the top 10 causes of death for children ages 5 to 14.

I have been interested in how some places are advocating the use of drones to fly out to people who are drowning to drop a flotation device. It seems a tad optimistic to me that a drone operator could respond quickly, locate a desperate person and accurately drop the device. But there is some research that says it could work. Lifeguards say the money would be better spent hiring more lifeguards.

Hospitals are required to be ‘transparent’ in their pricing. So why aren’t they?

On Jan. 5, Kaiser Health News published a story about how transparent hospital pricing was about to become. After all, it was a new law. Yet here we are, a half of a year later, and Kaiser finds:

But some hospitals bury the data deep on their websites or have not included all the categories of prices required, according to industry analysts. A sizable minority of hospitals have not disclosed the information at all.

The consulting firm Guidehouse found a little more than half of the 1,000 hospitals it checked had posted some of their pricing data. Close to a third had posted nothing at all. And of those who had posted data, much of it was not “machine readable,” which is required by the federal law.

And, Kaiser says, consumers have not been as interested in price-shopping as you might imagine:

In theory, releasing prices may prompt consumers to shop around, weighing cost and quality. Perhaps they could save a few hundred dollars by getting their surgery or imaging test across town instead of at the nearby clinic or hospital. But, typically, consumers don’t comparison-shop, preferring to choose convenience or the provider their doctor recommends. A recent Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker brief, for instance, found that 85% of adults said they had not researched online the price of a hospital treatment.

And hospitals say the transparency push alone won’t help consumers much, because each patient is different — and individual deductibles and insurance plans complicate matters.

Maybe journalists could do more to teach the public how to shop for health care. Kaiser starts with this simple tip:

“You can Google the hospital name and the words ‘price transparency’ and see where that takes you,” said Caitlin Sheetz, director and head of analytics at the consulting firm ADVI Health in the Washington, D.C., area.

Typing in “MedStar Health hospital transparency,” for example, likely points to MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s “price transparency disclosure” page, with a link to its full list of prices, as well as its separate list of 300 shoppable services.

Who would profit the most from shopping? Kaiser reports:

Patients who are paying cash or who have unmet deductibles may want to compare prices among hospitals to see if driving farther could save them money.

Uninsured patients could ask the hospital for the cash price or attempt to negotiate for the lowest amount the facility accepts from insurers.

Insured patients who get a bill for out-of-network care may find the information helpful because it could empower them to negotiate a discount off the hospitals’ gross charges for that care.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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