Hurricane survivors: Stay or go?

Florida emergency officials are increasingly concerned about vulnerable seniors living in mobile home parks.

Emergency-management officials consider it a worst case scenario - a major hurricane bearing down on an area with a high volume of mobile home parks packed with senior citizens.

In anticipation, Florida officials routinely order all residents of trailer parks and prefabricated homes to evacuate to safer shelter whenever hurricane-force winds threaten.

But what storm experts didn't anticipate last Friday when hurricane Charley slammed ashore were Everett Cowan's wobbly legs, and Mary Bendus's fearless sense of adventure.

Mr. Cowan, 91, rode out the worst of the storm in his mobile home because he says he just didn't feel up to attempting the trip to a safer place.

Mrs. Bendus, his 81-year-old neighbor at the Slip Knot Mobile Home Park, planned from the start to stay in her trailer with her orange and white cat and $132 in newly purchased hurricane provisions.

"Me and Kitty-Kitty, we decided to stay and if the trailer takes off, we figured we would just take a long trip in the air," she says, explaining her decision.

What neither Cowan nor Bendus knew, was that the most destructive portion of hurricane Charley - the eye wall - was headed directly for the Slip Knot Mobile Home Park.

Longtime residents see such mobile home parks as their own tiny piece of paradise in the Florida sun. For seniors living on a fixed income, trailer-park living is relatively inexpensive and often comes with friendly neighbors and frequent social activities. But in the aftermath of hurricane Charley, emergency-management officials are growing increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of Florida's substantial population of retired seniors living in trailers or prefabricated houses.

It is still too soon to gauge the storm's impact on what has become a favored residential option for many Florida seniors. Some are already vowing to move to stronger structures or even to far away places where hurricanes never threaten. But many, many others - including Cowan and Bendus - say they plan to stay put even though their neighborhood now resembles a war zone more than a comfortable retirement community. "I have no other place to go," Cowan says.

While only a few of the 20 individuals killed during the storm lost their lives in mobile home parks (in part because of substantial evacuations), hurricane Charley offers a vivid illustration of how a fast-moving, somewhat unpredictable hurricane can hit hardest those least able to cope with disaster.

Rubble is all that greeted Jean Owens, 79, when she returned to her trailer home of 27 years at the Slip Knot Mobile Home Park. She says she had wanted to ride out the storm in her trailer but her son insisted that she stay with him in Orlando.

It's been a difficult year for Mrs. Owens. Her husband, Harry, passed away in April. And in June her insurance company refused to renew her policy.

Now, all she has left is strewn on a double-wide lot littered with twisted aluminum and splintered support beams. Her clothes are on hangers drying on a nearby chain link fence. Classic books, family photographs, her childhood teddy bear - all have been recovered. But a lifetime of other treasures remain buried beneath the debris. In the distance, an afternoon thunderstorm rumbles a warning.

Asked about her options, she says, "I don't want to live with the kids, they have their life to live." Instead, she says she'd like to return to the trailer park. And what if another hurricane comes? "I would stay," she answers immediately.

Asked about his decision to remain during the storm, Cowan says he did not consider the possible danger. "I just took the attitude that what will be will be," he says.

Cowan, Bendus, and Owens all live within 100 yards of one another on the same street. But while Owens's trailer was totally destroyed, Bendus and Kitty-Kitty got through with a broken window and a collapsed carport. Cowan's trailer took a serious hit from a falling palm tree with broken windows in both the front and back. His entire trailer has slid partway off its foundation.

Twenty feet away, a trailer was blown over, crushing an adjacent mobile home. Both were unoccupied during the storm.

A few miles away at the Emerald Lake neighborhood of prefabricated homes, Harold Maynard sits on what remains of his front porch. His daughter wants him to move back to Rhode Island. He likes the convenience of Florida living, but he dreads the idea of another hurricane.

"I am 76-years-old and I am getting too old for this kind of stuff," he says. His home survived the storm without serious damage. But earlier in the week he got out his ladder and climbed up on the roof to fix a leak. Once up there he realized he shouldn't be attempting roof repairs alone. But if he doesn't do it, he wonders, who will?

"How will I find someone to fix it with all these scam artists around here," he says. "They will take your money to buy materials and never come back."

Pat and Jim Hicks have lived at Emerald Lake for four years. But now after hurricane Charley they are thinking about moving to North Carolina. "Some people have moving vans in here, they are moving out already," Mrs. Hicks says. An insurance adjuster offered a neighbor a cash settlement - $60,000 for the structure and $30,000 for its contents. "They said, 'Fine, we're out of here,' " Mr. Hicks recounts.

Back at the Slip Knot Mobile Home Park, Bendus says she favors Michigan over Florida, but she has no plans to head north. "I'm staying right here," she says. "There might be a couple miles left in me, but I'm going to spend them right here."

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