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Thumbs Down to Natural Disasters

The editor of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions magazine was blown out of Florida during her vacation by Hurricane Frances and struggled to her office a couple of days later through the dying gasps of the very same hurricane. Talking to her Contractor Review writer in West Central Florida, who had battened down the hatches against Charley and Frances, helped out with disaster relief in Punta Gorda, and was at that moment awaiting the arrival of Ivan, an appropriate topic for the next Contractor Review seemed to be how natural disasters impact business in the construction industry. The race was on to interview contractors and write the article before Ivan possibly cut power to the area, as Frances had done.


The first two contractors contacted were also in West Central Florida. Neither were available for comment as they were either “all in a meeting about closing down ongoing projects and securing them, this being Friday and Ivan being expected on Tuesday,” or “Everyone is out preparing for Ivan’s impending arrival, securing sites. We can’t hold off until Monday as it will be too late.”


The fact that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had drawn a “projected path” line from the hurricane’s current position straight to their backyards may have focused their attention somewhat.


In the end, West Central Florida was spared “Hurricane Ivan the Terrible,” leaving no more damage than that caused by lost production. For the folks in the Florida panhandle, Ivan was more than an inconvenience. If there’s one thing true about natural disasters, it is that you cannot do much about them once they start. (But where one has any warning at all, such as in the case of hurricanes, it does help to rely on professional sources for information, rather than the scare-mongering media. A good site for hurricanes is www.crownweather.com/tropical.html.


An awful lot of time and energy can and has been wasted reacting to hysteria instead of keeping one’s eye on the storm and dodging it only when needed. Those who don’t may just waste their time, or may even end up moving into the path of the storm.)


KEEPING SCORE



Calling contractors outside the hurricane’s bull’s-eye proved more fruitful. How did natural disasters affect their business? A quarter said it brought in new business and two thirds said they cut their business. Perhaps this is a surprise given all the construction and reconstruction that follows such events, but not when one considers that most of the contractors we spoke with focus on commercial, not residential, it is easier to understand these results.


Those seeing increased business include a contractor in Central Florida who is “… having more work fixing storm damage.”


Another contractor in the same area said, “Business increases following hurricanes, as people call us needing repair, cleanup and general labor. Roof damage leads to drywall damage, obviously, and we can fix it.”


Then there’s the contractor in Kansas who said, “Tornadoes don’t demolish the structures that we work with, being commercial buildings. They often demolish residential down to the foundations. In fact, we had one twister large enough to require people coming in from surrounding states to help rebuild.


“But in commercial buildings, tornadoes just knock out windows and take off roofs, which we are not involved in. One element of tornadoes in our area that does result in extra business for us is they dump a lot of hail that damages the [exterior insulation and finish system].”


In Mississippi, this contractor said, “Hurricanes increase work volume when you have control over sub labor, sending them to disaster areas under the leadership of your own personnel.”


Then there are those who are negatively impacted by natural disasters.


The Mississippi contractor said, “If you use a lot of sub labor and don’t have your own personnel, hurricanes can hurt business, because that type of labor will leave your contracted project and run to a disaster area so it can benefit from the higher wages offered.”


In Central Florida, where the contractor found himself in the cross hairs of both Charley and Frances, the contractor said, “Accessibility and safety issues, like downed power lines, make it hard to work afterward. We lost eight days of power from Charley and Frances, which mainly impacted the office. We were able to throw people to work fairly soon after the hurricanes, but they were not very productive—as they were mainly picking up sh*t everywhere and checking on and fixing safety issues. If we were in the roofing business or the manufactured-housing market, our business would be boosted after these hurricanes, but drywall is secondary, and as we don’t do residential to begin with, our business does not pick up from hurricanes. Most commercial buildings are pretty well protected these days.”


A contractor in Southeast Florida said, “We were working on a Target store project in Port Charlotte when Charley blew through, but it didn’t influence us at all because the building was dried in and constructed to today’s standards. With Frances, we had to send everyone in the office home by Thursday noon. Most field employees did not work Thursday or Friday because the projects they were on were shut down and reopened on Tuesday. But some employees still do not have electricity at home. Everybody’s nerves were frazzled after five days of winds from Frances, and now, with Ivan approaching, it’s pretty demoralizing. That’s impacting productivity, too. Hurricanes definitely cost construction companies money.”


Back to the contractor in Central Florida: “We spend the few days before securing sites, then sheltering from the hurricane itself. Then the immediate cleanup afterward basically stops production for four days. Loss of power puts us behind schedules.”


A contractor in Louisiana sees it this way: “Downtime is the only impact we have from hurricanes, and even that is minimal— a day or two off while the hurricane blows through.”


But it’s different in North Carolina: “The rain stops us working. We are usually only hit by tropical force winds, although we had a hurricane here in 1989 that shut down the whole town with flooding, wind damage and electricity out.”


No stranger to nature’s wrath is a contractor in Puerto Rico: “Hurricanes take money from new construction to repair the old. Then there are the long-term consequences such as raised insurance, which cause some marginal new construction to fall through. Overall, my experience in Puerto Rico is that hurricanes have cost me business because I get little of the repair work as most of the damage is to low-end housing. All our housing is concrete (we pour concrete very cheaply here), so very little housing damage occurs. Most damage is to wood frames and zinc roofs, built by their owners. FEMA gives them the money and they rebuild their own houses. Business down here did not return to normal because of electrical problems for four months after Hugo and Georges. It was a burden on the company because we were not able to produce anything to cover our overheads, so we took a big loss.”


As with some of the contractors quoted above, an Alabaman saw some increase and some decrease in benefit to his business. “I restore condo buildings along the coast. We have many large projects ongoing during the fall and winter. I also hold hurricane contracts with many condominium associations. If a storm comes, I am their preferred contractor to repair damage. So when hurricanes hit later in the season, they disrupt jobs in progress that we cannot just drop. We [have to] bring in outside forces from subs we regularly work with. But when hurricanes hit earlier in the season, they do provide extra business. We are right now taking action with Hurricane Ivan four days away. It’s a lot of work with no way to recoup the cost at all. The only recompense we have from an owner is extra time on our contract for weather delay. But we have no way of charging for labor required during hurricane evasion actions.”


LEAVING RESIDENTIAL WELL ALONE



All commercial contractors we interviewed agreed that it was better not to become involved with homeowner rebuilding.


The Central Florida contractor said, “We try not to help out with residential reconstruction, except for friends and family.”
And the contractor in Southeast Florida said, “It is possible we would step in and help fix damage to high-end residential housing, $3 million and up. We are fully licensed, insured, total workers’ comp and so are not geared to tract-housing-type projects. We can’t compete with the prices of residential contractors who don’t have the overheads.”


Another Central Florida contractor said, “We help relatives and friends with residential repair. We won’t do that for homeowners in general because we do not want to deal with the bureaucracy of the insurance claims.”


But one Mississippi contractor has found a way to help homeowners without the liabilities: “We don’t normally do residential, but we are working with FEMA to send people down to install temporary coverings over homes to protect them until they can have proper roofing installed. FEMA provides the poly, and we install it.


PG (PRICE GOUGING)—
THE DIRTY WORDS


Part of the reluctance is the feeding frenzy that occurs in the post-disaster residential market as homeowners urgently seek that most basic of necessities—effective shelter.


We also checked in with the West Coast, where hurricanes aren’t as much of a concern as are wildfires and mudslides, not to mention earthquakes.


The California contractor said, “Wildfires impact residential contractors, who see an increase in their business. That’s where we see a lot of abuse by the minority of contractors who are unethical. That then results in a bad reputation for the whole industry, and those contractors who conduct business in the proper manner are then also subjected to a great deal of scrutiny. Earthquakes affect us from a volume standpoint, as commercial contractors, because they do touch our commercial structures. Again, we have the problem of some contractors taking advantage of the situation, resulting in the inevitable bad publicity about the construction industry.”


The contractor in Louisiana added, “We don’t pursue disaster-rebuilding work as we don’t like the rat race—out-of-towners coming in and overcharging, making a quick buck. We see this behavior in all the trades.”


DOING RIGHT BY OWNERS


Another point all contractors agreed on was the need to do the right thing.


The Alabaman said, “We are not a storm-chasing contractor. Some of those guys do not treat their clients fairly. We only repair storm damage for our regular clients. We do not hope for and look for storms. By showing building owners how we look after them and treat them fairly even in a disaster when many other contractors are in town taking advantage of building owners, we have built a loyal client base. Our clients rarely hire anyone else after that.”


The contractor in Louisiana said, “We are a third-generation business and plan on being here for the long haul. We are here to buy and bid our work, so we don’t need to capitalize on someone else’s disaster. But we do help repair the hurricane damage of our clientele and the projects we are already involved in.”


And in Mississippi, a contractor adds this bit of advice: “Don’t take advantage of home owners. There is so much work going on in Florida that they were having a labor shortage, and then these hurricanes hit. Relief labor needed to come from a wide area in order to mitigate the damage as much as possible. If you try to take advantage of a disaster situation, it will come back to bite you.”


“BUT WE’RE DIFFERENT”


One possible concern about honest contractors helping out with disaster reconstruction is how to prove you are not one of the dirty guys. Well, this does not seem to be an issue, as the following comments illustrate:


The California contractor said, “The residential market tends to have the greatest and most urgent need, resulting in the greatest vulnerability on the consumers’ side. In the commercial market, consumers are sophisticated professionals in the main. The pressure to get back in business is not as great as finding a roof for family members, so there is more time to be cautious and do due diligence. So we do not have to differentiate ourselves from the price gougers, because the commercial market itself is capable of differentiating between the bona fide contractors and the price gougers.”


A similar sentiment comes from the Southeast Florida contractor: “We don’t have to explain ourselves or our prices to high-end residential customers, because they do not want someone on their property who works out of the back of a truck.”


But where contractors do dive into the thick of post-disaster reconstruction, the following words of advice from our Alabama contractor might prove useful: “Keep careful documentation on all the work you do. So many contractors find themselves in trouble legally after the fact, because they do not bring buildings back to code when they repair them. So many of them use the chaos after a storm to take advantage of insurance companies and building owners. There is nobody there to watch over subs properly during these disaster aftermaths, so we just watch over ourselves. In the event there is an issue in the future, we can present the documents that show what we did and what we billed the owners for.”


AN OUNCE OF
PREVENTION ON THE JOB SITE



All contractors interviewed took action to secure their job sites against disasters they know are coming, and reported success in doing so.



“We deal with a lot of scaffolding, so we dismantle it all and either strap it and all materials down on site and tarp it, or, when we have enough time, we have trucks and trailers haul our stuff away. We prefer removing from site because it prevents those people who tour job sites picking up other people’s materials, from taking ours.” (Louisiana)


“We weigh our EIFS supplies down so they do not fly away.” (North Carolina)


“When we secure sites, we move everything inside as much as we can and band our materials. We bought a metal-strap banding machine just for this purpose. (Central Florida)


“I am more concerned with protecting my people in earthquakes, having a good response plan.” (California)


“We plan ahead, two to three weeks. Any openings we have created in the building envelope during repairs, we close up again.” (Alabama)


“We watch hurricanes out five days, and prepare so that we have a minimal amount of work to do as it approaches. We tie our trailers down with hurricane anchors, and place all our materials down in areas that will protect them, and tie them down in buildings if possible. If we have to leave them outside, we tie them down with hurricane anchors, also. We have had minimal loss in all hurricanes as a result.” (Puerto Rico)


In the same way that the British found something to smile about during the bleak days of the blitz (and many other groups during similar moments of crisis), and in the same spirit of defiance, we end with the sentiments of a Floridian whose town received a direct hit from two major hurricanes in one month: “After Charley and Frances, we are still smiling, but with Ivan on the way, we’re thinking ‘Bring ’em on, we’re ready!’”


No doubt he is!


About the Author

Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Clearwater, Fla.

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