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Companies busy with relief, recovery and rebuilding

Builders face many challenges as reconstruction begins

Marty Milstead, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Mississippi (HBAM) has been to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and seen the devastation first-hand. He said things are far worse than photographs or video show.

“You just have to see it. It’s total devastation,” Milstead said.

As cleanup ends and rebuilding begins, both residential and commercial builders should be busy for the foreseeable future. However, the entire construction community faces some daunting challenges as it looks to put its muscle to the task at hand in a very inhospitable environment.

“Homebuilders have some severe logistical problems to solve,” Milstead said. “For instance, where are crews going to stay? How are homebuilders going to take care of its people? What about available manpower? Will building materials be available? It goes on and on.”

Homebuilders perhaps face the stiffest challenges. They are already on the Coast, working to — literally — put roofs over heads in areas strewn with debris and sometimes lacking basic services such as water and sewer. Milstead said he saw shelters on Gulf Coast worksites as crude as tents — whether for homebuilders or homeowners, he was not sure.

Milstead said homebuilders currently have access to materials on the Coast. However, homebuilders, just as their counterparts on the commercial side, are looking at a near-future shortage of supplies and materials.

As far as homebuilders located in South Mississippi, Milstead said some have lost all assets. Many have had their homes destroyed. However, Milstead said he has not heard of HBAM members that suffered death or injury among its personnel.

A curve in the road

Just a few months ago, the Mississippi road-building community was crying foul due to the Legislature taking highway funds to bolster the state budget. Road builders were tightening their belts.

Katrina changed all of that quickly.

Like the homebuilders, road-building contractors are already on the Coast, forming the vanguard of reconstruction efforts. Without passable roads, other work cannot begin.

David Barton, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association, said that his members had suffered a lot of damage, but, to his knowledge, no fatalities or injuries.

The lack of funding and slowdown in road building has actually been a positive. With less work in other parts of the state, road builders have equipment and personnel available to send to South Mississippi as the massive job of repairing such major arteries as Interstate 10, U.S. 90 and numerous bridges, as well as countless lesser road repairs, goes into full throttle

Barton gave kudos to the Mississippi Department of Transportation. He said the state agency has waived performance requirements on projects around the state, giving road builders the leeway to send personnel off of those sites to work in the storm-torn area. “They deserve a lot of credit,” Barton said.

Subcontractors fare well

John Sullivan, board administrator with the American Subcontractors Association of Mississippi, said his members’ businesses and personnel were largely spared the storm’s fury. Most of ASA-Mississippi’s members live and have their businesses within a 50-mile radius of Jackson.
Still, he said his members are being forced to make some tough decisions.

“Our members are already participating in the recovery effort,” Sullivan said. “Subcontractors are having to decide if they are going to let down contractors with whom they have developed relationships over the years in order to go work on the Coast. Should they stay here, work with those they know, or go to the Coast where the conditions are tough and stand to lose business here?”

Waiting to go in

Commercial and industrial contractors face some of the same challenges as homebuilders, road builders and subcontractors, said Perry Nations, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Mississippi. The biggest difference between AGC’s members, as well as members of the Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), is that they are not already on the Coast working under stressful and challenging conditions. They are in the wait-and-see mode.

“Agree with it or not, the casinos and hotels will almost certainly be the first to be rebuilt,” Nations said. “That’s the major tax base, and the major employer. The issue of whether casinos will be allowed to rebuild on land or not has to be settled before work can begin.”

At press time, the issue of whether gaming will be allowed to build north of U.S. 90 was expected to be a part of the agenda of the special session of the Legislature called by Gov. Haley Barbour for September 27. Buddy Edens, president and CEO of the Mississippi ABC agreed that that decision had to be made before commercial/industrial construction could begin throughout the affected area. But once work began, it was not going to be easy.

“It is going to be very, very difficult,” said Edens, who said while some of his members had lost homes or offices, or both, most fared relatively well. “Having a place to stay, a shortage of materials and labor — it will be a real challenge.”

How much commercial construction will be required is yet to be determined. While some structures may stand, they may no longer be sound, and some of those that may have retained their structural integrity may have mold problems so bad that they will have to be demolished.

Help wanted

Every construction association leader spoke of concern over a shortage of labor, particularly the skilled. Mississippi-based contractors simply do not have the necessary manpower to handle all the work. As with the homebuilders, out-of-state, licensed commercial contractors are being allowed to work in Mississippi due to the emergency. But it highlights a problem that the construction community has been talking about for years now — the lack of new, talented blood coming into the industry.

“There was an immediate need for more skilled labor before Katrina. It was already quite serious. Now, it is even more critical and more of an emergency,” Edens said.

The industry needs to grab as many prospective students, straight out of high school in many cases, and get them trained and working as quickly as possible. Sullivan said he felt one organization is already in place to help, and the entire industry needs to support it now more than ever.

“There needs to be a greater emphasis put on the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation (MCEF),” Sullivan said.

The MCEF is a non-profit organization with the mission of gaining students’ awareness of careers in construction while still in high school. The group, supported by all of the construction associations as well as the Department of Education, offers training that allows those who complete the program to go straight to work out of high school or to give them a head start if a college career is planned. It also offers training for individuals who are already working in construction but want to improve their skills.

The MCEF has already responded to the crisis. It has established a link between those seeking construction work and companies with an immediate workforce shortage. A growing list of contacts will be made available to contractors, suppliers and industry associations, who will be provided not only contact information on the prospective employee, but also work experience, past training and position desired.

For more information, call the MCEF at (601) 605-2989 or toll-free 1-800-358-3788.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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