Home rebuilding: A long and costly burden for storm 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…

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