Tuesday evening at Bonita Lake RV Resort on Old 41, the air was crisp, calm not quiet, and a power line zapped a wet tree branch. Russell Boyer walked on soft pine needles and palm fronds in shorts, donning a baseball cap, carrying a sweating blue cup filled with an icy concoction, talking with neighbors. He was relaxed, just returned from the road.
“This place is like an old coat,” said Boyer, who has stayed at the park seasonally with his recreational vehicle four years straight. “It’s just comfortable. A bunch of nice people and we help each other out.”
The park’s big old blue and white sign at the entrance was pushed over, its cement feet kicked up in the air. In the heart of the RV park, the largest tree, a pine, laid on its side, defeated by Hurricane Wilma. Some people with manufactured homes replaced roof shingles, hammering. Others recovered pieces of mangled sheet metal from the snapped second-growth trees around the park. Still, others started generators to make a hot shower or meal.
Then there are people like Boyer, the ones with campers, recreational vehicles, and motor homes, who were virtually untouched because they need just a few hours to take hearth and home on the road, out of harm’s way. They don’t fret about what to take. They turn the key and go.
“I went up to Ocala on Sunday,” said Boyer. “Yup. I hitched up.”
An important distinction to make is that mobile homes are generally stationery while motor homes (campers and RVs) can be driven or towed. But not all motor homes are mobile.
The parks along U.S. 41 from Bonita Springs to South Fort Myers are dotted with sporadic disasters, affecting both motor units and straight manufactured homes. At the Woodsmoke Camping Resort in Estero, most of the lots were filled Thursday with motor and mobile homes. Woodsmoke owner and manager Harry Wheeler said there was not an unusual exodus of motor homes for Wilma, and whatever remained behind experienced little damage.
At Glade Haven trailer park on East Terry Street in Bonita Springs, one home is shelled and nearly gutted, its pink and yellow walls collapsed around it, its furniture thrown about on the bald ground, its soul and skeleton exposed, its owners driven away. Many homes lost additions, too.
“I’d say we were really lucky,” said David Fine, a maintenance worker for Glade Haven and a resident. “This is nothing like Andrew.”
The residences at Glade Haven don’t move around anymore, although some are motor homes. They are retired, occupied mostly by Hispanic families earning low wages, many of whom were without work on Tuesday because their usual jobs — like construction, air-conditioner and engine repair, kitchen work — were off-line due to Wilma.
Jose Brito has a black Mazda pickup truck parked behind his house, but it’s not the kind of home he can hitch up.
“It’s OK,” says Brito about his entire situation, even though there is no work that day. “There are no problems.”
Brito drove his family north to safety, he says. The home came through without a scratch.
On Sandy Hollow Lane in Bonita Springs, Andrea Benscoter sweated with a neighbor to clear her yard of fallen trees. A brand new camper was on the side of her home, her silver Toyota Tacoma was in the driveway. She and her roommate bought the camper after Hurricane Katrina, partly out of fear, partly out of forethought.
“We said, if there’s ever anything like that coming for us, we would pack up our stuff and head north,” said Benscoter.
But they didn’t leave because Benscoter was by herself last weekend and couldn’t hitch the camper alone.
Just down the road, the Pruitt family has a sleek luxury RV parked in the driveway, the kind that costs as much as an average American home. They are Bonita Springs born and raised, so hurricanes don’t scare the Pruitts. Instead of fleeing Wilma in the RV, they lived in it Monday and part of Tuesday until power was restored, demonstrating the advantages of owning a motor home equipped with its own power supply, fresh water tanks, cooking fuel, and creature comforts.
“The biggest pro of owning a motor home is that you can get out of town,” said Jim Krueger, sales associate with Francis’ Fort Myers Truck, Auto and RV Land on U.S. 41 in South Fort Myers. “You’ve got your own bathroom, your own water heater — all the stuff we take for granted until a hurricane wipes them out.”
Krueger said the business sees a spike in sales after damaging hurricanes, especially around the time people receive insurance pay-outs. Sue Bray, executive director of The Good Sam Club, an RV enthusiasts organization, said not only do 5 percent of Americans live in motor homes full-time, but the industry’s biggest client right now is the Federal Emergency Management Association, which has been scooping up thousands of recreational vehicles and manufactured homes alike since the 2004 hurricane season.
According to Hoover’s, a publication that covers business and finance, the manufactured housing industry hit its lowest level in more than a dozen years in 2004, but has experienced a resurgence thanks, in part, to FEMA’s business. The RV industry, on the other hand, is riding the baby boomer wave. The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association reported 370,100 sales of RV models in 2004, a 15 percent increase over 2003. RV sales and related equipment were good for $14 billion last year. And a University of Michigan survey shows that about 10 percent of people 55 and older own a motor home, with figures projected to rise 15 percent by 2010.
Christine Douglas doesn’t need statistics to convince her that owning a motor home is smart in South Florida. She, husband Johnny, and dogs Wendy and Dixie, locked up and secured their mobile home in Palm Lake RV Resort on Bonita Beach Road in favor of their motor home.
“We sold one in January because we didn’t think we would need it,” said Douglas. “Then we bought one used in April, mainly because we have the dogs and we’ll never stay through a hurricane.”
Christine and Johnny rode-out one hurricane while living in Houston in the early 1980s, and never again.
“It shook our house and all the trees around us and tipped one on its side, just missing our house. If it went the other way, we would have had it.”
For Wilma, the Douglases loaded their 1992 Ford E-350 Jamboree — a humble motor home that Johnny restored, building a special staircase for 16-year-old Dixie — with important items and made way for LaBelle Woods RV Resort, lot 13.
“We don’t take chances.”
But they do take trips, and interesting ones at that. The Douglases have traveled the continental United States in motor homes from Alaska to upstate New York, and south to Mexico. As full-time residences, for recreation, or flight from disaster, Christine recommends motor homes.
“It doesn’t have to be fancy,” she says. “We have a dining table, a refrigerator, a stove, bathroom, sink, there’s the bedroom. Nothing fancy.”
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(Contact Staff Writer Matt Herrick at 213-6047 or at email@example.com)