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Labor shortage could have impact on rebuilding after April 28 tornadoes

A tornado passes near Barnes Crossing Mall in Tupelo during the statewide outbreak of April 28. Recovery and rebuilding has begun, but will likely take years to complete.

A tornado passes near Barnes Crossing Mall in Tupelo during the statewide outbreak of April 28. Recovery and rebuilding has begun, but will likely take years to complete.

Contractors are slowly starting to get to work repairing and rebuilding structures that were damaged or destroyed in the April 28 tornadoes that hit the Louisville and Tupelo areas particularly hard.

“A few folks are already working,” said Kenneth Estes, owner of Estes Building and Remodeling in Saltillo and president of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Northeast Mississippi. “A lot of it now is still dealing with the insurance companies.”

The association has about 100 members in Lee, Itawamba, Chickasaw, Union and Pontotoc counties.

Estes said he expects work in the storm damaged counties to start picking up soon. “It’s still going to be a couple more weeks,” he said. The first rebuilding is being done by people who don’t have to wait for insurance checks to get the work started.

The tornadoes damaged more homes than businesses, Estes said, and many residents are living in rental properties or hotels while they wait for repairs.

“A lot of people are now in the situation of trying to get roofs in the dry,” he said. “There are still a lot of tarps on now.”

Estes said local Tupelo officials have predicted it will take three to five years for all the work to be completed. “I’m sure it can be that long on some of it, but I’m thinking a year and a half probably to get most houses back where they need to be,” he said.

Some contractors already had work lined up before the tornadoes but now they all are faced with major rebuilding projects that will continue for several months.

“I’ve got about 14 jobs that I’m looking at now, all related to the tornado,” Estes said.

Now the challenge for all the contractors is to find enough people to handle all that work.

“The labor shortage we had from the construction industry slowing down is going to come into play on this,” Estes said of the storm damage. “I can see there being a delay because of the labor shortage.”

Estes said he doesn’t have enough people working with his company right now. “No, not even close,” he said. “I’ve got one more guy working right now and I could easily use another two more experienced carpenters as full time employees on top of my subcontractors. My subs are the same way; they can’t keep up either.”

Estes said the volume of work for construction companies including his own will overwhelm the subcontractors. “My painter works for about three or four different contractors and every one of us has got multiple jobs for him,“ he said.

The same is true for the roofer and the gutter installer he and other contractors rely on to finish their jobs. He said they will be “at the sub’s mercy getting the work done.”

Estes is using social media to try to hire more workers but hasn’t had much success. “I put a post on our Facebook page looking for help and not one person contacted me,” he said.

Estes has been in business since 1994 and said he has never seen anything like the millions of dollars of damage resulting from the tornadoes.

He said the association members met after the tornadoes struck to discuss insurance and other issues including the labor shortage. “Everybody you talk to can’t find enough help,“ he said.

During difficult times like those following the tornado outbreak, the pressure to satisfy customers can become uncomfortable for contractors. “It’s hard to make some folks understand that there are people who don’t have a home and they come in front of people building a new house. That makes some folks mad when your employees are pulled off their new house to work on storm damage. It does happen sometimes.”

So what’s a contractor to do? “You do what you can do and try to get people back as quickly as you can. That’s all you can do,” he said.

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