May 9, 2006

Southeast US still singing the blue roof blues

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) - Across the U.S. Gulf states from Texas to
Florida, tens of thousands of homeowners face the start of the
hurricane season on June 1 with roofs still agape and leaking
from damage caused by last year's storms.

Plastic tarps that were meant to be temporary patches still
cover many roofs because workers and materials have been
scarce, insurance payouts have been slower to arrive and
smaller than homeowners expected, and the sheer volume of
repairs has strained local building inspectors and permitting
offices, industry officials said.

"It's a mess. We have a big problem," said Charles Danger,
building director for Miami-Dade County. "When the rainy season
starts, which is now, we're going to have a lot of damage going
inside these buildings."

He estimates 16,000 damaged roofs still have blue tarps in
his densely populated southeast Florida county, and an equal
number don't even have that temporary protection.

Industry officials estimate it will take a decade to catch
up with the building backlog in parts of coastal Louisiana and
Mississippi, and two to three years to get back to normal in
the rest of the Gulf region.

"That's on the assumption that we don't have any more
storms," said Bill Good, executive vice president of the
National Roofing Contractors Association. "If you get another
couple of hurricanes coming through those same areas, then all
bets are off."

The Gulf states were hit by three major hurricanes in quick
succession last year, causing an unprecedented $57 billion of
insured losses.

Hurricane Katrina submerged most of New Orleans and razed
the Mississippi coast, knocking down many buildings. Hurricane
Wilma took the power lines, leaving one-third of Florida in the
dark. Hurricane Rita left most buildings standing but took the
roofs, Good said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put blue tarps on 192,000
roofs in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to keep out
the rain until the owners could make permanent repairs.


Some homeowners are still waiting for insurance payments,
and many who got their checks didn't realize that deductibles
for hurricane damage are usually much higher than other

"If the insurer has paid, they haven't paid all the money
the owner expected, so the owner hasn't been able to hire
anyone," Danger said.

Competition has been fierce for labor and materials,
especially in Florida, which is in the midst of a new-building
boom and still making repairs from the four hurricanes that hit
the state in 2004.

The cost of roofing supplies rose 12 percent to 25 percent
in 2005, industry officials estimated. Products like asphalt
shingles are petroleum-based and their cost is expected to keep
rising as oil prices jump.

Clay and concrete roofing tiles were in short supply before
the 2005 hurricanes, and manufacturers are building new plants
to fill orders backlogged by up to six months.

"We're running to the max, making as much tile as we can,"
said Ahna Heller, a spokeswoman for MonierLifetile, a
California company that recently broke ground in Lake Wales,
Florida, on its 14th tile-making plant. "Everyone in the
industry is having a really hard time keeping up with all that

Homeowners are also finding it can take weeks or months to
get estimates from roofing contractors, and some are not
accepting new clients because they cannot handle more work.

"We have a labor shortage and that is one of the major
problems," Danger said.

Roofers tend to be in their 20s through 40s, an age group
that is not growing in the native-born population. The industry
relies on immigrants for 40 percent to 50 percent of its
325,000-person workforce, Good said.


The labor shortage is worst in Florida, which normally bars
roofers who lack Florida licenses. Gov. Jeb Bush issued an
order allowing local authorities to let in workers licensed out
of state. But many are loath to do so because of bad
experiences in the past with transients who took the money and
fled or were unfamiliar with the state's tough building codes.

Regulators are also strained. Miami-Dade County has issued
20,000 roofing permits in the last six months, 40 percent more
than in all of the prior year. Its inspectors are climbing up
onto 1,200 roofs a day to sign off on repairs, six times their
normal workload.

"They start at 7 o'clock in the morning and work until it
gets dark," Danger said. "They've been doing this for at least
two months, three months."

Building inspectors are in such demand that some
municipalities are handing out 20 percent pay bonuses to keep
them from jumping to other employers.