By Jose Diaz/For CU-CitizenAccess/CHAMPAIGN – Every time the National Weather Service issues a storm warning, Heidi Zavaleta has to decide where to seek shelter. She can stay at home, go to the mall or drive to the nearest hospital.
Most of the time she simply stays at home.
Zavaleta lives in Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park, a trailer home community in northern Champaign. She knows that mobile homes are not safe during storms but staying at home is safer than what most of her neighbors do.
“Most of them just go underneath the interstate’s bridge,” she said.
Because the neighborhood lacks a storm shelter, residents of Shadow Wood are in danger every time a storm approaches. Whether they stay at home, drive to a hospital or climb up underneath the interstate’s bridge, they put their lives at risk. They have no other options.
In this seriesMap: Changes in Champaign County's Hispanic population
Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park has 255 occupied units and 850 residents, most of them Hispanics. It is located between Market Street and the Canadian National railroad tracks just south of Interstate 74 in Champaign. Not only does the neighborhood lack a storm shelter, the closest public building that could provide shelter and is open 24 hours a day is Carle Foundation Hospital located two miles south of Shadow Wood. Walking from Shadow Wood to the hospital could take up to 30 minutes.
Mary Blue, office manager of Shadow Wood, said she tries to orient tenants about storm safety when they first move to Shadow Wood, but that “even though you tell them that it is not safe, they think that [the interstate’s bridge] is the best place for them, with concrete over the top of them.”
The National Weather Service’s website explained that overpasses are dangerous because they provide little to no protection against debris and because wind speeds can be higher underneath overpasses.
Jose Rodriguez, a Colombian immigrant who lives in Shadow Wood, said that during storms he takes his family to the mall. “When we moved, people who had lived here for many years told us ‘the mall was a good place to seek shelter,’” he said. Market Place Mall is located just north of Shadow Wood, across the interstate.
Due to the large Spanish-speaking population at Shadow Wood, many residents don’t rely on mass media warning systems, which are in English. Many residents said they don’t find out about the proximity of a storm until the sirens go off.
Residents explained that when severe weather hits and the sirens go off, road conditions are often bad and visibility low, making it difficult to drive across the city to seek shelter. This is why many decide to stay at home, climb up the bridge or go to the nearby mall. (Story continues below)
According to census data, only 6.1 percent of the United States population lives in mobile homes. But the National Weather Service data states that 43 percent of all U.S. deaths occurred in mobile homes. This puts mobile home residents at a higher risk of being injured during a tornado.
One reason trailer parks don’t provide shelters is because no federal or state laws require park owners to provide storm shelters to tenants.
Greg Skaggs, a community development specialist for the city of Champaign, said that the city is aware of the situation at Shadow Wood and is looking for ways to create a shelter that residents could use in severe weather.
The neighborhood where Shadow Wood is located has been an area of concern for the city. To address the issues of the area, the city created the Bristol Park Neighborhood Plan, which was designed to improve housing, recreation, transportation and public safety. One of the long-term goals of the plan is to encourage the building of a storm shelter near Shadow Wood.
Skaggs said it could take up to 20 years to accomplish the long-term goals of the plan, but building a shelter could take even longerThe city has no funds to build a shelter or any plans to allocate money in the future. Even though the Bristol Park Neighborhood Plan mentions the need for a shelter, the city is “encouraging” the construction of a shelter instead of creating a project to built one.
The city hopes to find an organization or private donor that could provide the funds to create a storm shelter, Skaggs said.
The city owns a vacant lot just south of Shadow Wood that would fall within the 150 feet radius recommended for a storm shelter.
“We would be willing to use our land and if another organization would come in and want to set up their operations maybe we could donate our land, it could be a partnership that way,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs said the city contacted the trailer park owner, who is willing to cooperate with the city or any other organization that wishes to build a shelter. But Blue said the trailer park doesn’t have the money to invest in a storm shelter.
“We have a lot of things here in the park that needs to be done before we do anything like that,” Blue said.
Shadow Wood is not the only trailer park community in Champaign County without a storm shelter. Residents of the Chief Illini Village, located in the corner of Interstate 74 and State Route 130, have to seek shelter elsewhere as well. Blue, a resident of the village, said that most of her neighbors stay at home but others seek shelter at the MEDCAT 911 building or at Carle Foundation Hospital. (Story continues below)
As spring and summer approach, the risk of severe weather increases, and Champaign County is not a stranger to severe weather. The National Weather Service Forecast Office estimates that 60 tornados have made landfall in Champaign County since 1953. One of the strongest tornados recorded touched down in east Urbana in the spring of 1996. The tornado had wind speeds were between 158 and 206 mph, strong enough to lift a trailer home.
Residents choose to go to places that are not safe such as overpasses or grocery stores because they have not been informed about what to do when severe weather is present. Neither the city nor the trailer park administration provides Shadow Wood residents with information about how to handle a severe weather situation.
Rodriguez said that, in the two years he has been living in Shadow Wood, he has never seen or heard any type of information delivered to residents other than what gets passed around between neighbors. Neither Rodriguez nor Zavaleta has an emergency plan in case of severe weather.
Blue said not many residents ask for information about storm safety, but she tries to orient them every time she can.
“I have no idea where to send them and know they will be safe… If they come and ask I tell them to go to Carle,” she said.
Originally published April 20, 2011