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Months after storms, some still struggle with recovery

The Panhandle has it the worst because of debate over whether storm surge or wind was the culprit.

Associated Press
Published February 28, 2005

PENSACOLA - Chuck Johnson and his golden retriever, Molly, share a small camper parked in front of a concrete slab, all that remains of his hurricane-battered home.

The 56-year-old film technician is among thousands of Floridians still struggling to recover five months after the last of four hurricanes rampaged across the state.

Disputes with insurers and shortages of materials, contractors and labor have delayed repairing or rebuilding many of Florida's 700,000 damaged dwellings.

Johnson, awaiting an insurance settlement, is unsure when, or even whether, he will rebuild. He has thought about selling his lot and going elsewhere but is torn because he loves the scenic lagoon across the street.

"I'm like a tennis ball, just back and forth," Johnson said. "Sometimes I stay awake in bed. Your mind is like a blender."

Insurers have settled 90 percent of 1.6-million claims statewide from Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, which also killed 117 people in Florida when they hit in August and September.

But Johnson is in the remaining 10 percent of property owners still waiting for their check.

His National Flood Insurance Program policy - capped at $250,000 per home - will cover at least part of the damage, but his wind insurer has refused to pay anything, contending Hurricane Ivan's storm surge was entirely to blame for destroying his house.

"Those are very difficult cases," said Sam Miller, spokesman for the Florida Insurance Council. "A lot of them have gone to court."

The storm surge issue is confined almost entirely to the Panhandle where Ivan struck.

As a result, this area has lagged behind the rest of the state with an 80 percent settlement rate. Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne did most of their damage with wind as they crisscrossed Florida's peninsula.

Ed Wadley, 89, a retired telephone worker, lived a couple blocks from Johnson but doesn't plan to return. He's staying with his daughter in Nashville, Tenn., but retaining his now-empty lot as an investment. Wadley said he is satisfied after receiving wind and flood settlements.

Yet just across the street, a different insurance company denied Dan Brannon's wind claim. Brannon, 51, an unemployed mechanical engineer and his wife, Gaynell, 61, have hired a lawyer and are suing.

Brannon did get a flood settlement, but he said it's not enough to rebuild to new codes. The codes increase construction costs but help protect against future damage by requiring homes in flood-prone areas to be elevated on pilings.

Citizens Property Insurance, created by the state as an insurer of last resort, has been particularly slow paying claims because it had no adjusters on its payroll.

Citizens hired adjusting firms that also had contracts with national companies, which provide them year-round work while Citizens uses them only for hurricanes.

"They gave those companies service first," said state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. "They took the Citizens policyholders last."

Leigh Ann Gill, 45, and her husband, Konrad, 50, borrowed $80,000 to start fixing their home pending an insurance settlement.

"We're doing a lot of the repairs ourselves because you just can't find anybody to do it," she said.

Getting roofers and roofing materials has been difficult across the state, resulting in backlogs of as much as seven months and price increases of about 25 percent, said Steve Munnell, executive director of the Florida Roofing, Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association.

"With hundreds of thousands of roofs that need to be replaced, it just takes time," Munnell said. "There's just so many roofing contractors in the state."

Gov. Jeb Bush signed an executive order letting out-of-state contractors work without Florida licenses through mid May, but they still must meet the state's insurance requirements and obtain local specialty licenses. Some jurisdictions have declined to issue such licenses.

It took about 45 days for Lifetime Roofing Inc. of Dallas to get workers' compensation insurance, which is not required in Texas, said company president Tommy Vieth. He brought in workers and shingles from Texas, renting a warehouse here, to get around labor and supply shortages.

The shingle crunch eased during the winter as manufacturers ramped up production and demand from cold weather states dropped, but it still can take as much as six weeks to get an order, Munnell said.

Those delays may get longer. The expiration of the governor's executive order and the return of warmer weather are expected to send contractors, workers and shingles back north.

"If they decide to go home, it could be a free-for-all for good-quality, skilled labor," said Pensacola contractor Dan Gilmore, president of the Florida Home Builders Association in Winter Park.

Vieth, however, plans to get a Florida license and stay here because he expects several more months of work, possibly extending into 2006.

"There's a tremendous amount of blue roofs still out there," Vieth said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided blue plastic tarps as a temporary fix until homeowners could get permanent roof repairs. They are designed to last only three to six months, and many are shredding from exposure to wind, rain and sun.

Lamar Advertising Co. has come to the rescue in the Pensacola area by donating used billboard covers to replace some deteriorating tarps.

Some other building materials also can be hard to get but none more than cement, Gilmore said. He contends a tariff on imports from Mexico is keeping supplies down, prices high and causing construction delays of as much as 90 days.

Ed Sullivan, chief economist for the Portland Cement Association in Skokie, Ill., blamed low supplies on a shortage of ships, not the tariff that has been in place for 10 years.

[Last modified February 28, 2005, 04:24:05]

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