Chris Parrish remembers the Saturday in April 2011 when tornadoes ripped through North Carolina, killing 24. He owns a mobile home park in Southeast Raleigh, and his brother, who was living in the park at the time, sought shelter in a nearby storm drain.
His brother had nowhere else to go. Residents of mobile homes are in special danger when tornadoes strike, because their homes are less likely to have safe spaces in which they can wait out a storm. Most of the 24 North Carolinians killed in those storms lived in mobile homes; four children were killed in Stony Brook North, a Raleigh mobile home park just 8 miles north of Parrish’s.
The tornadoes missed Parrish Manor, a 280-home park Parrish built in 1998 with his father and which they now own together, but the close call set him on a quest to find a way to protect residents of the park from the threat posed by tornadoes.
He is almost there. In 2013 he received a FEMA grant for almost $900,000 to construct a Community Safe Room, a large emergency shelter that could protect up to 870 people during a tornado. But his ambitions are greater; he wants the facility, a 5,040-square-foot windowless building that can withstand wind speeds of more than 200 mph, to double as a community center.
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After raising additional money in donations and pledges, he is asking the city and the county to fund the rest of the project, requesting $237,000 from each. Officials say they applaud the innovative combination of services for the community, but some have reservations about whether the city should back a privately owned facility that primarily benefits residents of Parrish Manor.
The city and county are drafting budgets now and must approve them by the end of the month.
The FEMA grant for the project was given through the agency’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation program, and it got high marks from FEMA thanks, in part, to the high concentration of people nearby in need of shelter, said Nick Burk, who manages grants for N.C. Emergency Management and worked with Parrish on the application. The state agency will administer the FEMA grant.
The daily use that Parrish has in mind means higher costs – it requires water, electricity, and landscaping – but he says it also will provide an answer to daily threats to prosperity and security in mobile home parks. The communities’ residents are often economically disadvantaged and isolated from parks and other recreational facilities.
‘Stuck on an island’
For almost 10 years, Parrish has been working to counter those challenges in his mobile home park with the Nessie Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Parrish Manor that provides services to the more than 400 children in the nearly 1,100-resident community, such as free daily bus rides to the local Boys and Girls Club and a bike repair workshop.
“They’re stuck on an island out here,” Parrish said. “So you better figure out some stuff to bring to them.”
He thinks a large indoor space would allow the foundation to do more. Current plans include a computer lab geared toward kids that need to do homework online, and a small kitchen that would provide more space for the cooking classes that it currently offers through a partnership with the Wake County Cooperative Extension.
Kay Crowder, a member of the Raleigh City Council, said she hoped the project would make it into the city’s budget. She said that four of the eight city council members were prepared to vote in favor of the proposal. It will need five votes to be included in the budget.
“To me, it’s a win-win, for the city and for the kids,” Crowder said.
Other members think the proposal is not an appropriate use of city money.
“He’s asking for us to use public dollars to pay for improvements to private property,” Councilman Wayne Maiorano said. “He’s asking us to help fund something that has an isolated benefit.”
The shelter will be built on Parrish Manor land, leased long-term at $100 per year to the Nessie Foundation, a registered nonprofit, which will own the shelter.
“It really is a worthwhile cause, but there are many worthwhile causes,” Maiorano added.
Concerns about the extent of services also were raised in county budget meetings, according to James West, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commisioners.
“I think it’s a good project,” West said. “I think there’s some question about the outreach and that it might be confined to the people and the youth in the complex.”
But he added that the county would take its lead from the city. A city vote to fund the project, which it might do over a period of years instead of in one lump sum payment, would “improve the chances tremendously.”
Parrish has pushed hard for the funding, speaking at city and county meetings, and in one instance busing members of the community to a city council meeting.
‘Peace of mind’
Wendy Church, 48, a single mother of two who has lived in Parrish Manor for 31/2 years, went to the meeting and spoke in support of the shelter.
Her children have participated in a number of Nessie Foundation programs, including gardening and bike repair workshops. Church moved to Parrish Manor from a stick-built house, and said she had low expectations when she arrived, because of the stigma surrounding mobile homes.
But now, she said, she “can’t put a price” on the opportunities her kids have received while living there, and she thinks a community center will provide more opportunities. Plus, she said, storms are a major concern in the community, and having a shelter available would make her feel more secure.
“It gives parents some peace of mind at night,” she said.
The FEMA grant stipulates that the project must be completed within three years of the official documents being signed, and it will take 12 to 16 months to build according to the Nessie Foundation.
If it does not receive the local funding this year, Parrish said he will continue independent fundraising efforts and come back to the city and county next year. But he is optimistic about its chances and already looking ahead to the opportunities it will open up.
“It’s going to be a game changer,” Parrish said.