Residents of mobile home parks were at greatest risk To the Camp Fire

Burned mobile home park in Paradise, CA Image: Noah Berger / Associated Press

Burned mobile home park in Paradise, CA Image: Noah Berger / Associated Press

This excellent LA Times story on the Camp Fire paints an all too familiar scene: low-income, elderly, and disabled residents of a mobile home park in Paradise were the most likely to perish in the disaster. Some quick thoughts on this important story…

There is a stunning lack of research on mobile home parks, generally and specific to disasters. Mobile home parks house nearly 3 million households in the United States, in all sizes and shapes of communities. They are a vital source of affordable housing in many places, especially California, Texas and Florida.

I’m sure we have all heard the jokes about mobile home parks and tornados. Toby Keith affectionately sings about the stereotypes in the song Trailerhood, for example. Disaster researchers do know a little bit: we know that mobile homes, especially pre- “HUD code” homes (built before 1976) are especially vulnerable to natural hazards like fire and high winds. But this is only one dimension of vulnerability. Many of the unique aspects of mobile home parks and their relationship to disaster risk remain unexplored.

My colleagues (Esther Sullivan and Carrie Makarewicz) and I have a lot to say about this in a paper that is currently under review and hopefully coming out soon, but I can share a few of our key insights from an 18-month study of Colorado that align strongly with this case in California:

  • Mobile home parks can be fantastically affordable, especially in the context of the growing affordability crisis in many parts of the country.

  • Mobile home parks tend to spatially concentrate socially vulnerable households.

  • Mobile home parks tend to be in more hazardous areas (like floodplains) relative to site-built housing, for different historical reasons.

  • Mobile home parks are stigmatized in popular culture and even the affordable housing world, and tend to get stigmatized in local plans and regulations - what Esther Sullivan identifies and terms “socio-spatial stimgatization” in her new book. This has all kinds of important implications for disaster risk, including presenting major barriers to recovery.

  • Mobile home parks have unique tenure arrangements, where residents often own their housing unit but rent the land underneath. Again, this has all kinds of important effects on disaster vulnerability, from lack of insurance to exclusion from community engagement processes.

Lots more to say, and I will share our article when (fingers crossed!) it gets published. In the meantime, the NSF has given us the resources to do a large-scale study of mobile home parks and Hurricane Harvey in the Houston metropolitan area. You can read a few of our preliminary findings here.

New Research: Rural Urbanization and Disaster Risk in India

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Gretel Follingstad (PhD candidate, University of Colorado Denver) and I have a new article in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction entitled “Urban disasters beyond the city: Environmental risk in India’s fast-growing towns and villages.” We studied 5 fast-growing towns and villages in the mountains of West Bengal, India with some pretty eye-opening findings.

The mountains of West Bengal are exposed to numerous hazards, most importantly landslides and earthquakes. We used Birkmann et al.'s MOVE framework to study household and community risk to these hazards. Numerous factors contributing to disaster risk, most importantly the expansion of the built environment into hazardous areas. In places still governed as rural we found that the number of buildings and paved roadways has increased by 40-80% in the past decade alone. The economy has also shifted, away from agriculture and towards tourism, an industry highly vulnerable to acute "shocks," especially from a major disaster. Lastly, towns and villages are still governed by rural institutions which are largely unequipped to manage urbanization. There is little-to-no regulation of building and development, or coordinated efforts at hazard mitigation.

While urbanization has brought many short-term benefits and increased resilience in some ways, disaster risk is being created and is accumulating in the built environment, and will someday be "released" by a major disaster event. While this is a small-N study, we expect to find similar trends and dynamics in fast-growing villages and towns elsewhere in India. This "hidden urbanization" is a force that is virtually absent from the hazard/disaster research literature.

Please see the abstract of the article below. The full article is available here. If you do not have access to IJDRR, please contact me and I can provide you with a copy.

Abstract

India is one of the fastest urbanizing countries in the world. Although urban scholars tend to focus on India’s large cities, urbanization is also transforming its villages and towns. In this paper we ask how urbanization is shaping environmental risk in five fast-growing towns and villages in the Darjeeling District, a mountainous region in the state of West Bengal. We base our study on the MOVE Framework, a comprehensive and integrative framework for assessing disaster and climate risk. Drawing on primary and secondary data collected over a 3-year period 2015–2017, we find that urbanizing towns and villages are characterized by rapid spatial growth, dynamic and challenging hazard contexts, and limitations in governance capacity or resources to document, govern, or adapt to emerging environmental threats. The risk that is accumulating in the built environment and economy may only be “revealed” after a major disaster, however. These characteristics and trends are likely common in other small urbanizing places and must be managed to achieve national and international goals for sustainable and resilient development.

Lecture: disasters and uneven recovery (University of Utah)

Damaged mobile homes in Evans, Colorado. Image: The Greeley Tribune.

Damaged mobile homes in Evans, Colorado. Image: The Greeley Tribune.

I will be speaking at the University of Utah on February 21st, 2019 on “Disasters and Uneven Recovery: Lessons from the 2013 Colorado Floods.” My lecture will report findings from an 18-month study of mobile home parks in Colorado that were impacted by the disaster, and the struggle of residents to return to their communities and rebuild. The lecture is part of the Year of Resilience Event Series, hosted by the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning and the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah.

For information on the time and location, and to learn about other resilience events at the U, visit their webpage.