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Deadly tornado prompts call for improving RV park safety standards

One of the many mobile homes and RVs ravaged from Tuesday's early morning EF2 tornado hitting the Prairie View RV Park in Watford City sits twisted in the scoria rock, ripped from its trailer frame. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK—In the aftermath of a deadly tornado that struck in the heart of North Dakota's oil patch, state and local officials are calling for increased safety standards for RV parks that often house oilfield workers and families.

An EF 2 tornado ripped through the Prairie View RV Park early Tuesday, July 10, killing a newborn baby and injuring more than two dozen people.

The tornado displaced 200 people and destroyed at least 120 structures, including recreational vehicles that served as temporary housing.

McKenzie County leaders are aiming to meet with state officials as early as next week to discuss what can be done to limit the number of people who live in RVs and how to make the trailer parks safer, said Planning and Zoning Director Jim Talbert.

"It takes a tragedy like this to open our eyes," Talbert said.

Many RV parks and worker housing camps in Watford City and McKenzie County were constructed before the county had zoning ordinances. Often, they were built in a hurry to house workers during the housing shortage prompted by the oil boom.

"Everything happened so fast and furious in those years, things were overlooked," said Karolin Jappe, McKenzie County's emergency manager. "I'm not pointing my finger at anybody. It just happened too fast."

McKenzie County, in the core of the Bakken where oil production is highest, tightened the standards for temporary housing parks in 2016, but the rules only apply to new developments.

County leaders have struggled with how to require upgrades for RV parks that were considered to be "grandfathered in," said County Commissioner Vawnita Best.

"We need to do better for people who come here to work," Best said. "They deserve better."

Now, the North Dakota Department of Health is looking at how it can strengthen state regulations to improve health and safety standards for mobile home parks and campgrounds.

Dave Glatt, chief enforcement officer for the Environmental Health Section, said he'd like to work with local officials to develop uniform standards for RV parks across the state.

"There are regulations on the books. I think they are substandard at this point in time," Glatt said.

Current state ordinances require a mobile home park with 10 or more homes to establish a procedure for responding to emergencies and inform tenants of the plan.

But the ordinance isn't very prescriptive, and the state doesn't have a good way of monitoring whether RV parks are complying, according to Glatt.

"Our enforcement piece is really lacking," he said.

Glatt said he'd like to study what types of policies states, such as Oklahoma and others in Tornado Alley, have to protect residents of mobile home parks.

"They have to have some really good practices there because they go through this a lot," Glatt said. "Unfortunately, we've recently gone through this too much."

A similar tornado destroyed a smaller RV park four years ago south of Watford City, injuring nine people including a teenager who was critically injured.

In the recent tornado and the 2014 storm, neither RV park had a designated storm shelter.

Dan Ruby, manager of the Prairie View RV Park, said residents are encouraged to seek shelter at the nearby Eagles Club or the Watford City Civic Center downtown in the event of severe weather.

Ruby, who lives on site and hunkered down with his family while the tornado went around his trailer, said he'd be open to discussing adding a shelter or secure building.

A storm shelter may not have made a difference on Tuesday, however, because the tornado truck at 12:45 a.m. and many were asleep or not aware the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning that indicated a tornado was possible.

In 2016, McKenzie County leaders discussed requiring storm shelters for new mobile home parks but, ultimately, didn't require them. Now Talbert would like to reconsider that decision.

"I think we need to go back and revisit this and see what we can do as a county and/or a city to try to prevent this kind of tragedy," he said.

Another area Talbert said should be improved is requiring inspections for all manufactured homes. Current state law only requires inspections for new manufactured homes, he said.

Other safety issues that could be studied include strengthening requirements for tying down trailers, requiring more than one entrance to an RV park and increasing the separation between units.

Lt. Gov Brent Sanford, former mayor of Watford City, said state leaders are ready to work with local officials if the improvements will require new legislation or changes to state policies.

"We're here to help from the state's perspective," Sanford said.

Meanwhile, county officials also said the community needs more apartments and single-family homes as an increase in oil activity has ramped up the demand for housing.

"We need to do something about finding permanent housing for these people," said Jerry Samuelson, McKenzie County emergency manager.

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