MOREHEAD CITY — More than 10 months after Hurricane Florence caused widespread damage to homes, businesses and hotels throughout Carteret County, contractors to carry out the repairs are still stretched thin.
The problem primarily stems from the fact there simply aren’t enough skilled workers in the area to carry out the large volume of repairs necessary after last September’s storm, according to Carteret County Economic Development Director Don Kirkman.
“This is a challenge across the board for both the residential and commercial side, and it is still ongoing today,” he said. “…It’s just very difficult to find workers, it’s been tough on everyone.”
Mr. Kirkman said there was a labor shortage in the county even before Florence, particularly in the construction trades, but the aftermath of the hurricane helped highlight the problem.
Jerry Jones, owner of GA Jones Construction and mayor of Morehead City, agreed with Mr. Kirkman’s assessment about the lack of skilled labor in the county. He said he had to bring in laborers from out of the state to help in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Some of them are still with him today, and he said he still has a steady stream of jobs to carry out.
“It’s been a long road these past almost 11 months,” he said. “…We’re still very busy. There is no shortage of work for reputable contractors.”
Mr. Jones said the first few months after Hurricane Florence were somewhat hectic, and he scheduled jobs as he was able to. Now, although finding skilled labor is still a challenge, he says he has a better handle on the situation.
“It’s gotten more manageable,” he said. “I can’t say it’s gotten better, just that we’re better at managing it now.”
Mr. Kirkman said one challenge for home and business owners after the storm was how long it often took to settle with insurance companies. Because of the scale of the disaster, it took companies a long time to settle in some cases, and people couldn’t begin to search for a contractor and start repairs until weeks and even months after the fact.
Some people are so desperate to get started on repairs after a hurricane, they fall into scams. Mr. Jones said one of his clients had major damage to her home and decided to hire a contractor based on a friend’s referral. She paid the contractor about $5,000 up front, but he never showed up to do the work. Mr. Jones’ company stepped into the job and he worked out a payment plan with the client.
In other cases, Mr. Kirkman said people pay a premium to hire contractors from out of state. And although business is good for the contractors, he said labor and materials are more expensive after the storm, especially when companies hire temporary out-of-state workers, so homeowners and contractor companies alike are feeling a financial squeeze due to the labor shortage.
The lack of workers has had an economic effect on the businesses that have been unable to reopen since last year. The U.S. Small Business Administration offers business owners some financial relief in the form of low-interest disaster loans, which can be used for physical damage and economic losses, but Mr. Kirkman said the help can only go so far when a business is unable to reopen.
“It’s a huge problem still. Many businesses are unable to reopen because they are unable to complete repairs,” he said. “…Finding someone to do the work can be the difference between reopening and not.”
The labor shortage has hit the hotel industry particularly hard. Several large hotels suffered major damage and were unable to find workers and begin repairs before the tourism season began. The DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Atlantic Beach and the Bask hotel in downtown Morehead City are among those still closed.
Mr. Jones said one silver lining through the whole experience was seeing the generosity of others. Volunteer groups with churches and nonprofits, many from out of state, came into the area to help with repairs almost immediately after the storm passed, and some groups have plans to stay in the county long term.
“In the midst of all the stress, the sun’s always shining on the other side of the clouds,” Mr. Jones said. “…We couldn’t have done this as a community without the help of those volunteers.”
Contact Elise Clouser at firstname.lastname@example.org; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.