For third time, owner expects to lose home

August 26, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

GRAND CHENIER, La. -- Zonie Fruge lost her first mobile home to a fire. A tornado claimed her second. Tuesday -- from behind the wheel of a beat-up station wagon loaded to the brim with a niece, a grandson, a mattress and other supplies -- she waved a likely goodbye to her third.

"These are trailers," she said, pointing her car north from Twin Oaks Trailer Park as she and her family fled Louisiana's low-lying Gulf Coast and the unpredictable path of Hurricane Andrew. "There's nothing going to be left here when we come back."

Ms. Fruge -- unemployed like her husband and "barely getting by" -- had a full tank of gas, $60 in her pocket and no particular destination in mind.

But, she said, she's lived long enough and hard enough to know that when hurricanes like Andrew meet mobile homes like the ones that dot the small coastal towns of southern Louisiana, the hurricane always wins.

By Wednesday, her home -- on a swamp-enshrouded ridge just 4 miles from the Gulf of Mexico -- may have been shredded by winds, smothered under a tidal surge or both.

In marching across southern Florida on Monday, Hurricane Andrew flattened at least five mobile home parks. Two people were known dead, and the twisted metal skeletons were still being searched.

If it seems as if natural disasters always hit mobile home dwellers the hardest, that's because they do. The most affordable homes in America -- to many, the only affordable homes in America -- are also the most vulnerable.

Damage is more likely to be total. Injuries are more likely to be serious. And lives are more likely to be lost or permanently altered.

Mobile home residents don't have basements in which to take shelter, and they often can't afford to flee to the haven of a motel.

Mobile homes are commonly on flat, open land, the favored route of tornadoes and hurricanes. And they are often placed close together, making it likely that flying pieces from one home will damage another.

Mobile homes can be tipped by 70-mph winds, ripped off their blocks by winds of 80 mph and sent rolling by 90-mph winds, according to a Texas study.

While Ms. Fruge said that her home survived the last hurricane to come through Grand Chenier, the winds that time were just 70 mph. She knew it was dwarfed by Andrew, which late last night was carrying sustained winds twice that powerful.

"The greatest fear down here, though, is the flooding," she said.

"When the gulf pushes water in, this is all flooded down here. And the alligators and snakes come in with it."

Ms. Fruge recalled Hurricane Audrey, which killed hundreds of people in nearby Cameron in 1957. Some were killed by snakes. Some, having no safe shelter, tied themselves to trees and drowned in the storm surge.

As she spoke, the wind began whipping up. Relatives who also live in the trailer park -- there are 20 altogether -- began honking their horns and urging her to lead the car caravan north.

"My kids have grown up here for 10 years," she said, "All the children here are like brothers and sisters.

"It's home," Ms. Fruge said, pointing to her pale green trailer.

All but one of about 50 homes in the park had been vacated by late Tuesday afternoon, and the resident of that one said he wasn't going to be there for long.

"I'm fixing to put the haul-ass on right now," he said. "But I think the trailer's going to hold up."

Ms. Fruge had her grandson's bicycle loaded on the luggage rack, some food and a mattress wedged into the back, and a tube of hair styling gel on the seat next to her. Behind her, a grandniece followed in a car filled with clothes and her pet rat.

"I've got $60, and I don't expect that to take me too far," Ms. Fruge said. "We don't have a tent, and we can't afford a motel, so we'll probably be sleeping in the car."

Ms. Fruge, who lives in a trailer owned by her mother and pays $40 a month for the lot it sits on, has lived in the trailer park for 10 years. Except for occasional fishing jobs, she and her husband, like many along the economically depressed Gulf Coast of Louisiana, are out of work, surviving on the kindness of friends and family.

Although she expected to lose her home, Ms. Fruge was already talking about a silver lining in the ominous clouds of Hurricane Andrew.

"In a way I'm not entirely dreading it," she said of the destruction ahead. "It could lead to some jobs, like construction, and maybe some help from the federal government."

With that, Ms. Fruge restarted the wagon, took one last look at the Twin Oaks Trailer Park and turned onto state Highway 82, knowing full well, but not entirely regretting, that what was home yesterday could be history by today.

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