Hurricane Victims Feeling Pinch of Worker Shortage

Wed August 03, 2005 - Southeast Edition

GULF BREEZE, FL (AP) Robert Ferguson is resigned to a long wait before his home, destroyed by Hurricane Ivan, can be rebuilt — if it’s rebuilt at all.

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

“It’s too crazy right now,” the 42-year-old police officer said. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they don’t have the work force or the materials.”

Contractors, however, mostly blame a labor shortage rather than materials for holding up the repair and replacement of the tens of thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed by five Florida hurricanes over the past 12 months.

Last year’s four storms destroyed or damaged 700,000 homes, apartments and other housing units statewide, causing more than $19 billion in insured damage, according to state, federal and insurance industry figures. Hurricane Dennis, which struck the Panhandle July 10, will add to that total, perhaps $1 billion or more.

Ferguson lives in a trailer borrowed from a relative because Dennis destroyed the one he received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Ivan struck last September. It sits on the empty lot where his house once stood along Santa Rosa Sound in this Pensacola suburb.

“I got so fed up I canceled with my contractor,” Ferguson said. “I kind of lost faith in anything they were telling me — labor and materials and a whole bunch of other excuses.”

He now may sell the waterfront lot if “someone comes across with the right money” and find a new home inland. In the meantime, he’s ready to stay in the trailer indefinitely.

Former Air Force pilot Frits Forrer, who has written books about flying and his World War II childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland, 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,” said Forrer, 74.

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. The friend plans to rebuild but still is in court fighting with his insurance company.

Ivan destroyed or severely damaged every home on the block where the boat is docked, which has canals on both sides of the street. Ten months later, not one has been repaired or rebuilt although construction has begun on one replacement home.

“When 10,000 homes get damaged in a hurry, where are you going to get 10,000 additional crews?” Forrer asked. “It’s a logistical impossibility.”

While there’s now an adequate supply of most materials, cement remains the big exception, said Pensacola contractor Dan Gilmore, president of the Florida Home Builders Association. He said the shortage is delaying some projects by two months or or more and blamed a U.S. embargo on Mexican cement.

Gilmore said the labor shortage is affecting the entire state but is most acute in the western Panhandle, where “Dennis probably didn’t help any.”

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.

Florida builders are encouraging schools to teach construction trades and form Future Builders of America chapters, but those are long-term solutions.

“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 is doing hurricane repair and reconstruction only to help certain customers mostly because he cannot find workers although dealing with insurance companies is another difficulty.