When stormy skies leer on the horizon, most families in this tight-knit manufactured home community in Fridley don’t flee to the cramped, underground shelter for safety.
For years, neighbors instead have taken cover at nearby Mercy Hospital or the American Legion across the street. Some even stay put in their homes — a gamble sure to alarm meteorologists.
The tiny shelter in Park Plaza Cooperative can’t fit residents from all 79 homes, doesn’t accommodate pets and is prone to flooding, spurring families to avoid it, said Natividad Seefeld, who’s lived in Park Plaza since 1998 and is the cooperative’s president.
But soon residents will have a new storm shelter to hunker down in when the clouds portend trouble, with crews breaking ground this week on an aboveground shelter that will double as a community gathering space. The project in Fridley comes at a time of heightened awareness around Minnesota’s storm shelter standards as some push for increased compliance.
“This is going to set a precedent for a lot of communities,” Seefeld said. “It’s going to make people extremely aware that their [park] owners have to do something.”
State law requires the more than 900 mobile home parks in Minnesota to have either storm shelters or an evacuation plan in place when severe weather strikes. But some parks still may go without or have outdated plans, state officials and manufactured housing advocates say.
“The problem exists, but we are working with those parks that need to come into compliance to try to help them do so,” said Charles Dierker, an environmental health supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Health, which oversees 514 of the state’s parks. Cities and counties regulate the others.
“Minnesota is kind of a standout,” said Dave Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group All Parks Alliance for Change, which spearheaded the push for mobile home park storm shelter standards at the Legislature in the 1980s. “It blows me away that other states don’t have these clear, statewide standards.”
But even with tighter rules, it sometimes falls to residents to make sure shelters or evacuation plans are provided by landlords, Anderson said. In most parks, residents rent the land under their homes, putting park owners on the hook for providing shelters or evacuation plans.
“In some cases, it’s happening only because residents are being persistent,” he said.
Families in Park Plaza say being a resident-owned community has played a key role in helping their long-awaited shelter take shape. Park Plaza residents banded together in 2011 to buy the land beneath their community for nearly $4 million. A community board manages Park Plaza’s budget and day-to-day operations.
Having co-op members push for a project can make all the difference, said Victoria Clark of Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, a Minneapolis nonprofit that helps parks like Park Plaza become resident-owned.
“Park owners don’t necessarily have that motivating factor in their lives,” Clark said.
One-time grant funding from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency will cover $475,000 of the project’s $606,000 price tag, Clark said. Park Plaza has saved money and taken out a loan to cover the rest.
Because the storm shelter will double as a community center, it’s being built above ground. The concrete structure will be able to weather an F-5 tornado and wind speeds of 250 miles per hour, said project architect Von Petersen of TSP Inc. in Rochester.
Fridley is no stranger to monster storms, with devastating tornadoes from the 1960s and 1980s long ago etched in the town’s memory.
Seefeld recalled when straight-line winds swept through Park Plaza about five years ago, knocking down trees and damaging homes.
“It scared us pretty good,” she said.
Public safety officials say it’s best to leave a mobile home during severe weather like a tornado and advise seeking shelter in an interior room in a sturdy building or basement.
When tornado sirens sound, Seefeld said it can be tough for elderly residents in Park Plaza or those without transportation to make it to the hospital for safety.
Park Plaza’s new shelter can fit up to 250 people, making it an ideal meeting place for neighbors even when skies are blue, said Bonnie Johnson, who has lived there since 1999.
Work crews expect to finish construction in October, and residents like Johnson are already dreaming up future soirees.
“We can cook. We’ll have a kitchen,” Johnson said. “We thought come Christmastime we can all get together.”