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Van life-line: Living in RVs can be affordable but perilous given severe weather in Florida

Hurricane Idalia roars into the Gulf of Mexico toward Florida’s Big Bend in an image captured by NASA’s Terra satellite on Aug. 29, 2023. (Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory)

Soaring RV ownership in the United States is often linked to “VanLife” glamor and the envied lifestyle of digital nomads. But full-time RV living in Florida also looks like Ron Elrod and his family of four, who live in their camper at Coastal River RV Resort by the coastal town of Steinhatchee.

It’s not so much VanLife, as VanLifeline.

As Elrod, 38, and his wife and two children watched Hurricane Idalia draw a bead on the Big Bend of Florida last fall, they grabbed up their two cats and dog, Buddy, and evacuated to Perry, a city about 28 miles away. Crammed into a friend’s powerless garage, the family and the pets listened to the winds roar. All they could do was scour Facebook on their phones for updates on the storm’s destruction.

“It was real scary,” Elrod said. “When you see the walls on the building that you’re in move, it makes you wonder whether you made the right decision to evacuate. But I’m glad we left.”

A scallop haven nestled at the mouth of the Steinhatchee River on the Gulf of Mexico, the town of Steinhatchee was battered by Hurricane Idalia. Seawater surged 12 feet across coastal Taylor and Dixie counties, rivaling the devastating “Storm of the Century” in 1993. The first major hurricane on record to make landfall in this part of the Big Bend, Idalia’s winds reached 115 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center’s final report on the storm. In that garage, the Elrod family watched on livestream as the Steinhatchee River carried houses out to the Gulf.

Most owners at Coastal River RV Resort picked up and evacuated their RVs as well as themselves before the storm. But there were a few like Elrod who had nowhere else to move their campers. When the family returned the next morning, through the fallen trees and downed power lines stood their RV like a beacon.

Some reports estimate that 1 million Americans live full-time in RVs, with Florida one of the most popular spots owing to its lack of income tax and perceived ease of life. The numbers and conditions for those who do so for lack of other affordable housing options are elusive. Housing scholars report that “mobile, leisurely, full-time RVers are the most commonly researched RV population,” while “stationary, lower-income RVers are recognized but overlooked in studies.”

Elrod and his family live permanently in their RV because it’s affordable and close to the hardware store where Elrod works in town. Even after Idalia ravaged the coast, he doesn’t plan on living anywhere else, he said.

But if Hurricane Idalia hadn’t spared their camper, federal flood insurance and disaster assistance are generally not available for RVs that have not been converted to a permanent foundation. They would have lost their home — and gotten no relief.

Manufactured homes are a crucial part of the solution to Florida’s housing woes. But can they survive the state’s worsening storms?

Farther back in the camp, Amber McGreevy, 24, was more worried about protecting her one- and two-year-old children than their RV. McGreevy and her husband didn’t have a truck to move their trailer for Idalia, and two large oak trees loom over their home – one directly above their children’s room.

Their home was spared serious damage. But as the clouds receded, their troubles were only beginning. Before the storm, people stocked up on grocery items, including baby formula. In a town without a major grocery store for about 30 miles, she had no way to feed her child. She ended up getting formula from her mother in Georgia.

Like Elrod, McGreevy doesn’t want to move. Not only is camper life what they can afford, but she prefers it.

“It’s better than a house in my opinion,” McGreevy said. “Because I have lost so many homes growing up to natural disasters, I don’t want to that for my kids. When I get a truck, I want to know I can move my home and know it’ll be OK when we come back.”

As a variety of government, NGO and private-sector players work to try and fix the larger U.S. housing crisis, campers and RVs can serve as an adequate alternative to keeping people off the streets, said Adam Millard-Ball, an associate professor of Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But large urban centers don’t always have space for RV resorts like the ones in rural Steinhatchee. To provide temporary affordable housing in cities, Millard-Ball suggests converting excess space in public roads and parking lots into legal areas for camper residents to live. The average residential street is more than twice as wide as the functional minimum of 16 feet, and some of that extra space could be used as housing, Millard-Ball’s research shows.

Equally important is ensuring access to basic utilities like water hookups and garbage collection to full-time RV residents, he said.

“Some people like the nomadic existence, but for many people it’s the lesser of two evils,” Millard-Ball said. “It’s better than couch surfing or being in a tent.”

Jack is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.
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