Residents at Lake Village mobile home park in Goodview have waited a long time for a safe place to go to in the park when the tornado and thunderstorm sirens wail. After nearly two years of effort from local and company officials, complaints from residents, and threats of legal action from Winona County, a new storm shelter for the close to 200 people who live in the park on the north shore of Lake Goodview will be completed in about a month.
It is not unusual for a tornado to sweep up trailer homes and fling them like toys, so Minnesota state law requires trailer parks that are home to more than 10 people to provide storm shelters. However, a November 2011 fire consumed the former shelter and clubhouse at Lake Village. When a replacement shelter was reportedly not provided a few months later, Goodview Police Chief Kent Russell became concerned. "Where do these people go?" he asked. He started making calls.
While Winona County has legal jurisdiction over trailer park storm shelters, Russell knew that in the event of a disaster his department would be responsible for evacuating residents and, if tragedy struck, recovering victims. He hoped his calls might quickly resolve the issue.
A temporary fix
In the meantime, Russell and the city of Goodview helped arrange a temporary shelter for residents: the Selke Memorial Pavillion in LaCanne Park. That small structure is on the far side of Lake Goodview from Lake Village, more than a mile walk for some residents.
The LaCanne Park pavilion is a tiny shelter for approximately 200 people, said Lake Village resident Pat Haessig. "If it would have happened, say, during the night or something, some of the residents would have had a hard time getting over there," she added, noting the several residents with wheelchairs or the possibility of small children being home alone.
Russell distributed keys to the pavilion to residents, management, police officers, and dispatchers so that in the event of an emergency there would be someone on hand to get residents into the temporary shelter. He acknowledged the setup was not ideal, but said residents had to have something.
RHP Properties Regional Vice President Pete Schoppe agreed that having residents trek to the pavilion was less than ideal, but he noted that it met state requirements, and "with modern technology, I think it's safe to assume that there is adequate fair warning of a storm coming."
County threatens suit
In January 2012 Winona County inspectors got involved, asking RHP Properties for its plans for a temporary shelter and a long-term replacement. Winona County Environmental Health Specialist Lesli Haines explained that in March 2012 she sought out the help of County Attorney Karin Sonneman and the Minnesota Department of Health in regard to the company's "unresponsiveness." Lake Village management informed residents in April that the city of Goodview would allow them to use the LaCanne Park pavilion as a shelter.
Schoppe explained that tearing down and replacing the shelter was not a simple task. The old building contained asbestos, which, like the buildings destroyed in Winona's downtown fire last September, complicated demolition. RHP Properties then had to collect soil samples, receive state permits, complete plans with an engineer, and bid out the project to contractors. Construction began this June, 18 months after the fire. Schoppe said the Lake Village shelter should be complete within a month.
Haines acknowledged that RHP Properties had siting issues due to the property's close location to Lake Goodview and disputes with its insurance company that were delaying its efforts.
"We tried to rectify it as quickly and correctly as possible," Schoppe said.
Local officials and residents, however, were frustrated with the company's response. "The management company was basically dragging its feet," said Goodview City Administrator Dan Matejka.
Barb Beeman felt that she and her fellow residents were being taken advantage of, she said. A storm shelter and clubhouse is one of the basic amenities that residents pay for, Haessig commented. "It should have been corrected long before," she said.
Enforcing shelter requirements was a tricky situation for the county. Fines for storm shelters were not "on the books," Russell explained. The drastic step of "revoking the license would result in dismantling the mobile home park and displacing hundreds of people," Haines noted. So Sonneman, Haines, and their colleagues spent a year trying unsuccessfully to get RHP Properties to voluntarily comply with state law, they said.
In February of 2013, Sonneman threatened to sue the company unless it immediately began construction.
"While it took several months of further communications," in the end, "strong persuasion" prevailed without resorting to litigation, Sonneman said.
Beeman and Haessig expressed gratitude for the efforts of county and city staff.