On Aug. 25, Hurricane Katrina crossed the Florida peninsula as a Category 1 storm and entered the Gulf of Mexico. When it next struck ground in Louisiana near the Mississippi state line on Aug. 29, it was a Category 4 storm that left a wide swath of death and destruction in its wake as it moved inland. As the country is beginning to absorb the human cost and the scope of the devastation, once again the roofing industry is in the vanguard of the recovery.

Photo credit for Katrina photo: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
On Aug. 25, Hurricane Katrina crossed the Florida peninsula as a Category 1 storm and entered the Gulf of Mexico. When it next struck ground in Louisiana near the Mississippi state line on Aug. 29, it was a Category 4 storm that left a wide swath of death and destruction in its wake as it moved inland. As the country is beginning to absorb the human cost and the scope of the devastation, once again the roofing industry is in the vanguard of the recovery.

Once lives are saved and survivors are taken to safety, preventing further damage to property and ensuring that critical facilities are protected are among the top priorities as roofing contractors make impossible choices over where to start. A calculus with large numbers will be needed to address the multi-state destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

Doing their best to cope with the resulting chaos is a growing group of professionals who are gathering more experience with each storm. Last year's active hurricane season helped create a growing cadre of veterans who are willing and able to tackle massive projects quickly and get communities operating again. It may seem difficult to build a business model around storms, but the intensity and frequency of hurricanes has created a culture of emergency responders, estimators, and self-sustaining construction units that can navigate this difficult terrain.

"That's always been there," says Reid Ribble, president of the Ribble Group, Kaukauna, Wis. "You can look at hail and there's an entire industry built up around hail events. Now you have the same system following hurricanes."

Assessing the Damage

Hurricane Katrina was the kind of monster storm that residents of low-lying New Orleans had feared. The hurricane veered east and spared the city the most intense winds, yet still caused significant damage to windows and roofs, and levy breaks resulted in widespread flooding. From New Orleans to the Florida panhandle, the destruction was immense and continued far inland. At the New Orleans Superdome, where some 9,000 Louisiana residents sought shelter during the storm, the stadium's roof became the focus of media attention as the storm raged; there was some leakage, but the roof held. After the storm passed, much of the news footage showed obliterated buildings; there is a significant amount of roof damage in hundreds of square miles across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

No roofing plants in the area were lost to storms, but an industry that seemed on the verge of catching up with orders and improving inventory levels is looking at increased demand once again. Six tile plants in Florida are at capacity, and some delays were running anywhere from 32 to 56 weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. Although the storm caused relatively minor damage in South Florida, there are still homes with blue tarps elsewhere in the state awaiting roofing work from last year. Asphalt shingles installed in Florida must meet approval, while the other gulf coast states have no such restrictions.

"The supply of shingles and rolled goods have pretty much caught up with demand," says Steve Munnell, executive director of the Florida Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors Association. He believes that Katrina will contribute to future delays, but his state is just about caught up. "Even though some of the members are downsizing, we're still busy. They're hopeful that some of these displaced workers will come to Florida."

The bitter balance of tragedy and opportunity is common in the aftermath of storms. Damage means repairs, and displaced workers can mean new hires that can address the roofing industry's acute labor shortages. The number of people needing homes and jobs is incalculable, but including displaced workers in the rebuilding process can create a lot of positives out of a bleak situation.

"From a roofing standpoint, it's one of those double-edged swords," says Tim Dunlap, president and COO of Centimark in Pittsburgh. "We've been busy doing a tremendous amount of emergency repair service and some permanent repairs."

Centimark is in a unique position to tackle the widespread challenges caused by storms. With 65 offices, 2,500 employees and $304 million in sales for 2004, the national company can mobilize hundreds of workers from around the country. Even before a storm hits an area, the company specifies a point office and gathers resources that respond after the closest office makes an assessment. The company's Birmingham office is up and running to coordinate the reconstruction of Alabama while offices in Texas and Florida provide flanking coverage.

Storms have become such a big part of the company's business-the company billed $32 million in repairs last year in Florida alone-that Centimark recently generated a brochure to encourage companies to think now about storm preparation and emergency repairs. Within a week of Hurricane Katrina, the company had conducted helicopter tours and shipped in materials, but Dunlap admits that the work can be overwhelming, particularly when security is an issue. Crews have been threatened in a hospital in Louisiana and a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Alabama.

"We've had instances were we've had to have a police escort to get there," he says. "The biggest challenge we have had is actually getting into those areas."

Centimark also contributes to the recovery effort in other ways, including a $2 million donation to the Salvation Army last year. Also, profit thresholds are set for companies doing storm repairs.

"We encourage our fellows to bid the work very fairly," Dunlap says. "Our goal is to go down there and turn these places around."

The Aftermath

Ed Murton Sr. has followed nine hurricanes, but he doesn't relish the work. From Hugo to Andrew to Ivan, he's helped dry in hospitals to prevent further damage and helped schools open on time. While it's great to help people and stay busy, the logistics, desperation and financial pressures often work against the recovery effort. After helping Florida through the gang of four storms last year, Murton Roofing, a TECTA of America contractor based in Miami, still has $4 million to $5 million in receivables outstanding.

"When I was working Hugo, I got paid in three days," he says, adding that his eagerness to assist meant some soft contracts in the past. No more. "We're being very cautious to make sure we have solid contracts with deposits and for people who are going to pay. We're not storming over to that area with our commercial crews."

Being a part of a national roofing contractor with 52 locations gives him many options for resources. Murton itself has four branches in Florida to deal with the massive amount of repair work still to be completed there. His company has just sent 200 men to Louisiana, along with 10 new self-contained living units with their own generators and water storage.

Delivery of tile roofing can take up to a year after ordering, and Murton contracts for lightweight insulated concrete when he can't get polyisocyanurate board. The recent gas crunch compelled him to buy his own fuel truck to relieve him of one worry.

"I've got 40 men in Pensacola, and we can't find any gas," Murton says in early September. "We have massive material shortages. At one time, we couldn't get shingles for eight weeks."

One solution that addresses material shortages and the need for dry buildings is the usage of synthetic underlayments. His company dried in the damaged schools in West Palm Beach last year, and the buildings weathered subsequent storms as they waited for shingles to be shipped. His experience taught him that many building owners just want the leaks to stop while they deal with the host of problems that hurricanes can bring. Murton offers a one-year warranty on emergency repairs.

"That gives them a chance to settle down," he says. "It's really the total answer. Get them in the dry and then go back and do the reroof." Coping with insurance issues, damaged infrastructure and government agencies such as FEMA weighs down the process, according to Murton, who would like to see better coordination between the agencies.

He can recall times after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when roofing contractors were in such demand it seemed homeowners thought they walked on water, but the current dynamic is full of financial wrangling over who is going to pay for code upgrades and emergency repairs. The increasing deductibles now creeping into many Florida homeowners policies have lessened the claims risk for insurers while posing more financial risks for Murton and his colleagues at the South Florida Roofing Contractors Association.

"It's the main topic at our board meetings, how everybody is getting screwed," he says. "The insurance companies now stick their feet in the ground and say they're only paying this much."

Last year, the company pulled 400 workers from around the country to work in Florida, many of them crews from northern offices where work slows down in the winter. With existing offices in Birmingham, Ala., and Lafayette, La., the company is channeling resources into the affected areas, but it's going to take some time to get a handle on the situation.

"I think we're going to be in shock for a while," says TECTA of America CEO Mark Santacrose. "We do have fairly broad resources we'll tap into as needed. It's a tough time of year for us because we're busy across the country."

After helicopter tours and ground assessments by the local force, TECTA can repair large areas through a single source. An existing office not only helps with logistics, but licensing qualifies them to work in multiple states as soon the materials arrive. Existing customers are relieved to find the true value of knowing your roofing contractor, and it gives the company a starting point for the long road ahead.

Certainly travel and housing are expensive, but the company does its best to cope with the challenges. In fact, the damage to Port Charlotte from Hurricane Charley last year was extensive enough for TECTA to open a shop there.

It is one of several roofing contractors to establish a presence there to make repairs and also serve a rapidly growing area.

Raising Funds, Gauging the Economic Impact

In addition to material and labor, the industry is responding with donations and expertise. Roofing crews are concentrating their resources to ensure the maximum benefit, even handing out food and water as they make repairs.

The National Roofing Contractors Association has begun an unprecedented fundraising effort through its National Roofing Foundation. NRCA President Reid Ribble and all board members donated $5,000 and requested that members step up with their own contributions.

Working in an area where the disaster goes on for miles can have a sobering effect, but in that wreckage there is hope. While Ribble thinks that manufacturing capacity is sufficient, he thinks the labor shortage will become worse and give those displaced a chance to make a good living as they rebuild their communities.

"There is a fairly good potential they are going to find jobs in construction," he says. "There are a lot of jobs there right now." As the country comes to grips with the devastation, experts are just beginning to speculate on the ripple effects to come for the economy. Cars, appliances, and buildings will have to be replaced, as well as homes and businesses. The insurance industry and the government will be taking a huge hit, which means we all will feel it sooner or later. Fuel costs spiked after the storm, and crippled refineries in the Gulf could have long-term effects on fuel prices and inventories, further burdening the nation's economy. As events continue to unfold and the true scope of the devestation becomes clear, one thing seems certain: The effects of Hurricane Katrina will be felt by the entire country.

Sidebar: Superdome Weathers the Storm

The Superdome was an amazing engineering feat when it opened in 1975.

With a height of 253 feet and a diameter of 680 feet, it was the largest dome in the world until the Millennium Dome in London was completed in 1999.

The original polyurethane foam roof was damaged by hail in 1980, but reports show that it lasted some two decades before being replaced by a Firestone fully adhered EPDM roofing system installed in accordance with enhanced wind design standards as tested by Factory Mutual Research. The roof was covered with a white acrylic coating.

It was that roof that received so much attention during Hurricane Katrina. Media reports indicated there were holes in the decking, with some speculating that hurtling chunks of mechanical debris caused the damage.

"The fact that a well-designed and well-installed roof can sustain such damage is a testament to the severity and unpredictability of events like Katrina," said Jim Hoff, vice president of Firestone Building Products.