While Residents, Insurers Fret, Contractors Welcome Storms

May 18, 2007

With the 2007 hurricane season on the horizon, Steve Munnell acknowledges that the state’s roofing contractors are “praying for rain.”

The executive director of the Florida Roofing, Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association said a slow 2006 storm season and a sluggish new home construction market has hit roofers who were gleefully busy after the string of nasty, destructive hurricanes whacked Florida in 2004 and ’05.

“Everybody has said, ‘We sure could use a nice tropical storm — nothing serious,”’ Munnell said. “Some rain storms, a few leaks here and there, and suddenly the roofing industry gets very busy.”

So not everyone bemoaned the unprecedented string of ’04 and ’05 storms that tore up thousands of roofs and pool cages, dropped tree limbs on houses and cars, and created an almost hysterical clamoring for hurricane shutters, plywood, generators and bottled water.

The weather created a demand — and a fortuitous spike in activity and profits — for the people who fix roofs, cut trees, replace windows, rescreen pool cages, clean up debris, sell hurricane shutters and outfit people with things they need to get ready for the next storm.

Those folks will be watching the sky again as the storm season starts June 1, starting what hurricane forecasters at Colorado State University predict will be a busy six-month stretch. The forecast calls for 17 named storms — five of them major hurricanes — to form over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and a good chance of at least one making landfall in the United States.

Contractors replaced an estimated half million roofs in Florida after the 2004 and ’05 storm seasons, Munnell said. With the work drying up last year, many have been forced to downsize.

Suncoast Roofers Supply, one of the state’s largest suppliers of roofing materials, rode the post-hurricane boom well into 2006 before demand dropped, said Bill Tamayo, owner and CEO of the Tampa-based company. He acknowledged that the industry could use a storm that would blow off some roofs — as long as nobody gets hurt.

“I hate to admit it,” he said.

Tampa Roofing Co. owner Keith Swope described a profitable but chaotic period after the ’04 storms, marked by miscommunication and mismanagement as the Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinated initial reroofing efforts.

Despite business being sluggish now for much of the industry, Swope said he never wants to see a repeat of the post-hurricane “feeding frenzy” in ’04 that brought a legion of unlicensed contractors to the state.

“We’re like undertakers — we don’t work unless it rains,” Swope said. “But hurricanes aren’t good for anybody. We just want normal wear and tear.”

Hurricane hysteria also got people worrying about their windows. Jeff Williams, manager of Storm Shutter Specialist Inc. in St. Pete Beach, said he once had a 16-month waiting list for installation but is now all caught up.

“When the first four storms hit (in 2004), it skyrocketed,” Williams said. “There were people lined up out here on the sidewalk like they were going to the movies. Last year, everything dropped right back off to normal.”

Lots of new players jumped into the shutter game back then, he said. With last year’s quiet season, Floridians’ thoughts drifted away from hurricane preparedness.

“There are a lot of people who are hurting and laying off,” Williams said. “We’re a small family company, so we managed to get along. Some went out of business.”

Big-box retailers Home Depot and Lowe’s were bustling before and after the big storms as Floridians rushed for plywood to cover up their windows and supplies ranging from generators to gas cans. At times their parking lots looked like the mall on Christmas Eve.

Home Depot spokesman Don Harrison said the Atlanta-based company reloaded for another big season in 2006 that never came and emerged with a surplus.

“We slowed down some of the resupply efforts and just sold what we had in the store,” Harrison said. “It really wasn’t that big of a to-do, because primarily in Florida the need is still quite high for those products. People who survived two years of storms have vivid memories.”

Harrison wouldn’t talk specific numbers but said the run on hurricane supplies was good for Home Depot. But he noted that while it looked as if the stores were raking in the profits, it was offset by what wasn’t selling.

In other words, people buying generators, tarps and batteries meant that they weren’t buying the lawnmowers, rakes, rose bushes and patio furniture that usually would be leaving the store.

Spending on hurricane recovery boosted the state’s income tax revenue by millions of dollars and was credited with partially helping to jump start the economy.

But despite the storms creating profit, jobs and money for the state coffers, University of South Florida economist Phil Porter said hurricanes are bad for the state’s economy — period.

Any positive impact is temporary and blotted out by the disruption in business and billions of dollars in damage, Porter said.

“If we weren’t replacing what the hurricane destroyed, we’d be moving ourselves further into the wealthy future,” he said.

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