Construction shortages, insurance disputes delay Fla. recovery

Monday, February 28, 2005


Chuck Johnson and his golden retriever, Molly, share a small camper parked in front of a concrete slab, all that remains of his hurricane-battered home.

The 56-year-old film technician is among thousands of Floridians still struggling to recover five months after the last of four hurricanes rampaged across the state.

Disputes with insurers and shortages of building materials, contractors and labor have delayed repairing or rebuilding many of Florida's 700,000 damaged dwellings.

Johnson, awaiting an insurance settlement, is unsure when, or even whether, he will rebuild. He has thought about selling his lot and going elsewhere, but is torn because he loves the scenic lagoon just across the street from his lot.

"I'm like a tennis ball, just back and forth," Johnson said. "Sometimes I stay awake in bed. Your mind is like a blender."

Insurers have settled 90 percent of 1.6 million claims statewide from Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, which also killed 117 people in Florida when they hit in August and September.

But Johnson is in the remaining 10 percent of property owners still waiting for the check.

His National Flood Insurance Program policy -- capped at $250,000 per home -- will cover at least part of Johnson's damages, but his wind insurer has refused to pay anything, contending Hurricane Ivan's storm surge was entirely to blame for destroying his house.

"Those are very difficult cases," said Sam Miller, spokesman for the Florida Insurance Council. "A lot of them have gone to court."

Leigh Ann Gill, 45, and her husband, Konrad, 50, borrowed $80,000 to start fixing their home pending an insurance settlement.

"We're doing a lot of the repairs ourselves because you just can't find anybody to do it," she said.

Getting roofers and roofing materials has been difficult across the state, resulting in backlogs of up to seven months and price increases of about 25 percent, said Steve Munnell, executive director of the Florida Roofing, Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association.

"With hundreds of thousands of roofs that need to be replaced, it just takes time," Munnell said. "There's just so many roofing contractors in the state."

Gov. Jeb Bush signed an executive order letting out-of-state contractors work without Florida licenses through mid-May, but they still must meet the state's insurance requirements and obtain local specialty licenses. Some jurisdictions have declined to issue such licenses.

It took about 45 days for Lifetime Roofing Inc. of Dallas to get workers' compensation insurance, which is not required in Texas, says company president Tommy Vieth. He brought in workers and shingles from Texas, renting a warehouse here, to get around labor and supply shortages.

The shingle crunch eased during the winter as manufacturers ramped up production and demand from cold-weather states dropped, but it still can take up to six weeks to get an order, Munnell says.

Those delays may get longer. The expiration of the governor's executive order and the return of warmer weather are expected to send contractors, workers and shingles back north.

"If they decide to go home, it could be a free for all for good quality skilled labor," says Pensacola contractor Dan Gilmore, president of the Florida Home Builders Association in Winter Park.

Vieth, however, plans to get a Florida license and stay here because he expects several more months of work, possibly extending into 2006.

"There's a tremendous amount of blue roofs still out there," Vieth says.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided blue plastic tarps as a temporary fix until homeowners could get permanent roof repairs. They are designed to last only three to six months and many are shredding from exposure to wind, rain and sun.

Lamar Advertising Co. has come to the rescue in the Pensacola area by donating used billboard covers to replace some deteriorating tarps.

Some other building materials also can be hard to get but none more than cement, Gilmore says. He contends a tariff on imports from Mexico is keeping supplies down, prices high and causing construction delays of up to 90 days.

Ed Sullivan, chief economist for the Portland Cement Association in Skokie, Ill., blamed low supplies on a shortage of ships, not the tariff that has been in place for 10 years.

Florida relies on imports for up to 40 percent of cement supplies but most of it comes from other Latin American countries, Europe and Asia while historically most Mexican imports have gone to Southwestern states, Sullivan says.

Contractors were busy, and labor in short supply, even before the hurricanes struck because of a strong housing market in Florida and the storms have done nothing to weaken it.

"We have enough work for everybody to live real good for about four years," Gilmore says. "That's how long it's going to take."

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