US home rebuilding: A long and costly burden for hurricane victims

Miguel Moncado, of Oxford Contractors, guts a flood-damaged home in the Meyerland neighborhood in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. (Austin American-Statesman via AP)
Updated 14 September 2017

US home rebuilding: A long and costly burden for hurricane victims

With floodwaters nearing knee height, Arlene Estle fled to the upstairs of the Houston house where she’s lived for 50 years and raised four children. It was many hours later before her son-in-law arrived by boat to rescue her.
Her flooded home didn’t fare so well. It could be a year, her contractor warned her, before she can return. Until then, she’ll have to find some place to rent.
“I’m going to be 83,” Estle said one recent morning as her daughter and housekeeper helped try to disinfect her belongings. “This is just a life-changing thing for me to face with making so many decisions. It’s just overwhelming.”
Estle is among the fortunate ones. She has flood insurance and a longtime contractor who can start work soon. Most victims of Harvey have neither. Months will be spent struggling to assess damage, navigate federal assistance and apply for loans. Then, victims will have to compete for contractors who have already put prospective clients on waiting lists.
All told, it could take years for some people to rebuild, if they can do it at all. The same could be true of many victims of Hurricane Irma, which caused its own catastrophic damage in Florida, though less than initially feared.
For anyone who needs to repair or rebuild a home or business, the back-to-back hurricanes coincided with a national shortage of carpenters, electricians, drywall installers and other skilled workers. Many construction workers left the industry after the housing bubble burst a decade ago and haven’t returned.
With fewer younger workers entering the business, the average age of some construction trades has reached well into middle age. There were 255,000 unfilled construction sector jobs recorded in June, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
On top of the worker shortage, homeowners will pay elevated prices for materials, which had already been rising this year.
“The labor shortage is going to make this take longer, but more importantly, it’s going to be more expensive than people think because labor rates are going to go up dramatically,” said John Burns, CEO of John Burns Real Estate Consulting, a housing industry research firm.
Few construction companies outside Texas and Florida are eager or equipped to travel there to handle rebuilding. Most are already busy on work closer to home.
“Why would I take a chance on going to Florida or the Gulf Coast for temporary work, where I might not be able to find housing, when I can find steady employment here and now?” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America.
In Texas, Harvey compounded a heavy demand for housing. Texas had been on pace for 30,000 housing starts in 2017. Now, an estimated 200,000 more homes suddenly need to be repaired or rebuilt. Construction jobs were already taking one or two months longer than usual, said Scott Norman of the Texas Association of Builders.
Nearly 70 percent of Texas contractors had trouble finding concrete workers, electricians, cement masons and carpenters, according to a survey of construction firms that the Associated General Contractors of America conducted in July. Texas has long struggled to replenish its aging construction workforce. The average age of a master electrician in Texas is 59. For plumbers, it’s 62.
Stephen McNiel of Creative Property Restoration, a remodeling firm in Houston, received calls from seven flood victims on the day he visited longtime client whose recently restored home had been ruined by Harvey. One came from a woman who had phoned dozens of contractors. All warned her it would be months before they could take on additional work.
“There is a tremendous amount of demand — far more than I’m capable of handling and than everyone I know in my industry is capable of handling,” McNiel said.
McNiel said he could use 50 percent more workers but is struggling to find subcontractors. He said he worries that the shortage of skilled labor is being exacerbated by a perceived suspicion of immigrants under President Donald Trump.
“The reality of my industry is that most of the work gets done by immigrants,” McNiel said.
Simonson noted Trump’s decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a reprieve from deportation to nearly 800,000 immigrants brought to the US as children.
“Texas, more than ever, needs people with construction skills from any country,” he said.
Victims of the storms can first expect delays in having their property assessed for damage by insurance adjusters. Then, securing financing will become a challenge. Flood insurance coverage has declined in both Texas and Florida as premiums have risen. Many homeowners will have to go into debt or dig into savings to make repairs — or sell their properties.
For homes that have sat the longest in feet-deep water, drywall and insulation will need to be stripped down to studs and dried. Then everything from wooden flooring to electrical systems and interior doors must be rebuilt.
Mary and Duane Hendricks, retirees who live a few streets from Estle, have decided to give up on their home, now flooded for the second time in two years. They still face a prolonged repair process in hopes of selling it. The Hendrickses have begun removing Sheetrock and flooring to prevent mold.
Two years ago, they tried to live in their home while it was being repaired for flood damage and ended up moving out after three months. This time, they arranged a rental even before the hurricane hit. If they can’t sell, they will just walk away from the home they bought in 1971, where they raised two children and built a sunroom where they taught yoga in retirement.
“We cannot go back,” said Mary Hendricks. “It’s a beautiful home, and we’ve had it for years and we’ve done a lot of work on it. That’s the heartbreaking part.”
In Florida, the magnitude of damage from Irma is still coming into focus. But the widespread flooding means Florida will have to compete with Texas for many of the same materials and laborers. Irma spread its destruction over a vast territory, covering all of Florida and causing major damage to Georgia as well.
“It isn’t just a few counties — it did damage in county after county,” said Douglas Buck of the Florida Home Builders Association. “That’s going to make it more difficult for contractors and builders to go where the problem is and help rebuild communities.”
In Houston, Estle’s contractor, Dan Bawden, urged her to seek a yearlong rental while her house gets fixed. Bawden foresees months of delays in obtaining drywall, interior doors, siding, trim moldings, ceramic tile, cabinets and plywood.
Even before the storm hit, his remodeling firm had a six-month backlog of projects. Now, with eight full-time employees, he’s “overwhelmed with more calls coming in that we can respond to.” Prospective clients must get on a waiting list.
As Harvey approached, Bawden rushed to secure his network of 60 contractors, knowing they would soon be pulled in different directions. He worries that six months from now, “they are going to want to charge more or go work for someone else.”
Florida is no more equipped than Texas to handle a surge of construction demand. Miami still hasn’t recovered all the construction jobs lost in the recession. The metro area, which also includes Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, had 130,000 construction workers in August, compared with 168,000 in 2006.
“In our economy, money talks,” Simonson said. “People who have the most urgent need in some cases will be able to buy their way to the front of the line.”


Sanders blasts Russia for reportedly trying to boost his presidential campaign

Updated 11 min 46 sec ago

Sanders blasts Russia for reportedly trying to boost his presidential campaign

  • “They are trying to cause chaos. They’re trying to cause hatred in America,” the Democratic presidential wannabe said
  • US intelligence officials have said the Russian effort also continues to support Republican President Donald Trump

WASHINGTON: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Friday warned Russia to stay out of US elections after American officials had told him Moscow was trying to aid his campaign.
“The intelligence community is telling us they are interfering in this campaign, right now, in 2020. And what I say to Mr. Putin, if elected president, trust me you are not going to be interfering in American elections,” Sanders told reporters in Bakersfield, California.
Sanders, 78, a democratic socialist from Vermont, is considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination and is favored to win the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
The Washington Post on Friday, citing people familiar with the matter, said US officials had told Sanders about the Russian effort and had also informed Republican President Donald Trump and US lawmakers.
It was not clear what form the Russian assistance took, the paper said.
A congressional source confirmed intelligence officials have told lawmakers Russia appears to be engaging in disinformation and propaganda campaigns to boost the 2020 campaigns of both Sanders and Trump.
The source, however, cautioned that the findings are very tentative.
Sanders, a US senator, said he was briefed about a month ago.
“We were told that Russia, maybe other countries, are going to get involved in this campaign,” he told reporters. “Look, here is the message: To Russia, stay out of American elections.”
“What they are doing, by the way, the ugly thing that they are doing — and I’ve seen some of their tweets and stuff — is they try to divide us up,” he said. “They are trying to cause chaos. They’re trying to cause hatred in America.”

Moscow denies
The Kremlin on Friday denied Russia was interfering in the US presidential campaign to boost Trump’s re-election chances, following reports that American intelligence officials warned Congress about the election threat last week.
US intelligence officials told members of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in a classified briefing that Russia was again interfering in American politics ahead of November’s election, as it did in 2016, a person familiar with the discussion told Reuters on Thursday.
Since that briefing, Trump has ousted the acting intelligence chief, replacing him with a political loyalist in an abrupt move as Democrats and former US officials raised the alarm over national security concerns.
A senior administration official, however, said the nation was better positioned than in 2016 to defend against foreign attempts to influence elections.
“President Trump has made clear that any efforts or attempts by Russia, or any other nation, to influence or interfere with our elections, or undermine US democracy will not be tolerated,” the official said.
On Twitter, the president accused Democrats in Congress of launching a misinformation campaign that says Russia prefers him to any of what he called the “Do Nothing Democrat candidates.” Trump called it a “hoax.”

Russian accounts
Facebook said it has not seen any evidence of Russian assistance to Sanders’ campaign. In October, the company took down Russian-backed accounts that pretended to be from political battleground states.
Some of those accounts used Instagram to praise Sanders. Another used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and faulted Joe Biden on race issues.
Jessica Brandt of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an organization that monitors foreign interference in US politics, said Russian state media and official social media accounts have been working to help Sanders by amplifying conspiracy theories that his Democratic rivals, the Democratic National Committee and the “corporate media” have been “rigging the system” against him.
“We can say with certainty that this is what the Russian government is pushing,” she told Reuters. “We’ve seen for some time Russian official channels promoting division within the Democratic Party.”

Warning signs
US officials have long warned that Russia and other countries would seek to interfere in the Nov. 3 presidential election, following Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign that ended with Trump’s surprise victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
US intelligence agencies concluded that the Kremlin used disinformation operations, cyberattacks and other methods in its 2016 operation in an effort to boost Trump, an allegation that Russia denies. Trump, sensitive to doubts over the legitimacy of his win, has also questioned that finding and repeatedly criticized American intelligence agencies.
On Friday, the Kremlin said the latest allegations were false.
“These are more paranoid announcements which, to our regret, will multiply as we get closer to the (US) election,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “They have nothing to do with the truth.”
Russia’s alleged interference sparked a two-year-long US investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Mueller found no conclusive evidence of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. He also pointed at 10 instances in which Trump may have attempted to obstruct his investigation, as Democrats alleged, but left any finding of obstruction to Congress.