Labor shortage may hinder rebuilding, repairs in Fla. Tornado damage recovery could take up to a year


ORLANDO, Fla. -- Shortages of construction workers, particularly roofers, could slow the rebuilding and repair of the 1,600 homes and apartments ravaged by a series of tornadoes that ripped through Central Florida two weeks ago.

Government and insurance officials estimate damage from the tornadoes at more than $100 million. Forty-one people were killed in the storms that struck Feb. 23 and more than 260 people were injured.

While several contractors conceded there had been a tight labor market for several months -- accentuated by the construction of Disney World's Animal Kingdom and the expansion of Sea World -- public officials said they were confident that enough workers could be found.

"My gut feeling is we should be OK," said Kissimmee Mayor Frank Atkinson. "It's tight, but manageable."

He said he hoped that completion of the two theme park projects would free workers needed for the storm repairs.

But Atkinson said it could take as long as a year to rebuild the damaged areas, including some malls, because of the shortage.

Ron Utterback, president of the Homebuilders Association of Mid-Florida, acknowledged that "there are some trade labor shortages," adding that the storm damage "is probably going to irritate it some more."

There are 41,900 construction workers in Central Florida, and the overall unemployment rate is 3 percent. "Contractors tell me they have difficulty in finding the labor they need, and the difficulty seems to be continuing," said Kevin Birckey, an economist with the Florida Department of Labor.

Tom Lagomarsino, executive director of the homebuilders association, said, "If you want the labor, in some cases you may have to pay a premium." The going rate for laying cement block is $1 a block, he said. Some contractors might have to pay $1.10 to get the job done.

The pay for carpenters in central Florida averages $13 an hour and can rise to $24 an hour; general construction workers start at $5, with a maximum of $15. Plumbers average $19.75; electricians $21.50, and painters and paperhangers $11.50.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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