Florida slow to rebuild after five hurricanes in 12 months

Saturday, July 23, 2005

GULF BREEZE, Fla. -- Robert Ferguson's home was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan 10 months ago, and he's resigned to waiting even longer before it can be rebuilt -- if it's rebuilt at all.

His contractor delivered some material, then said he needed to take some back. The rest was destroyed last month by Tropical Storm Arlene before any work began. Frustrated, Ferguson fired the contractor and has no immediate plans to hire another.

"It doesn't take a genius to figure out that they don't have the work force or the materials," said Ferguson, a 42-year-old police officer.

Contractors say a shortage of labor has delayed repairs to hundreds of thousands of homes, apartments and other housing units that have been damaged or destroyed by five Florida hurricanes over the past 12 months.

Last year's four storms caused more than $19 billion in insured damage, according to industry figures. Hurricane Dennis, which struck the Florida Panhandle July 10, will add to that total, perhaps $1 billion or more.

Following Dennis, Gov. Jeb Bush extended until Sept. 17 a previous executive order that allows state-licensed building contractors to do some roofing work. It does not, however, permit out-of-state contractors to work without a Florida license.

Dan Gilmore, president of the Florida Home Builders Association, said the labor shortage is affecting the entire state but is most acute in the western Panhandle, where "Dennis probably didn't help any."

He also said that although most materials are now in adequate supply, cement remains the big exception. Gilmore said the shortage is delaying some projects by two months or more and blamed a U.S. embargo on Mexican cement.

The construction industry was in a labor crunch even before the hurricanes, said David Peaden, executive director of the Home Builders Association of West Florida. He said there's an estimated shortage of 250,000 construction workers across the nation.

"It's very difficult to find quality help, sometimes any help at all," said Taff Berrian, who runs a small construction company in Pensacola. He said he has lost his electrical, plumbing and drywall subcontractors since the hurricanes because they can earn more by working for bigger companies or directly for homeowners.

Berrian said he is forced to turn away hundreds of hurricane victims.

"There's no way in the world we can begin to help them," he said. "If I had a crew of 20 drywallers we could keep them slammed every single day of the week."

Former Air Force pilot Frits Forrer, 74, knew he never would rebuild when Ivan destroyed his Gulf Breeze home.

"I used to be a builder and took one look and I figured it would take three to four years of aggravation, and we didn't need it at our age," he said.

Forrer and his wife, Katey, 81, now live on a 51-foot boat tied to the dock of an empty lot where a friend's home once stood.

Many homeowners are dealing with the shortage by doing their own repairs. That includes Berrian, who has his Ivan-damaged home about two-thirds repaired.

"I'm like the cobbler -- the cobbler's kids have no shoes," Berrian said. "I work on my house when I can, which is not very often."

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