Superstorm Sandy's ill wind may have blown some good into the region's beleaguered construction industry.
Repairing the billions of dollars in damage done by Sandy is providing work for builders and remodelers on Long Island, and in New York City, where many Long Island construction workers are employed. When Sandy arrived Oct. 29, the industry had made little headway in its struggle to recover from the recession.
The battered housing market discouraged new home building, a teetering economy discouraged commercial development and cash-strapped governments cut spending on infrastructure. Some major projects, such as the Nassau Hub redevelopment, were canceled or delayed.
From January 2012 through November, permits were taken out for only 1,575 housing units on Long Island, a fraction of the recent peak of 6,618 in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and down 4 percent from the same period in 2011.
In total, the construction industry on Long Island and in the city had lost a combined 36,500 jobs from October 2007 to October 2012, leaving 171,500.
Construction jobs specifically on Long Island, which totaled 75,400 in October 2007, fell to 56,700 in October last year, the state labor department said.
Then came Sandy, which destroyed or left uninhabitable more than 2,000 homes on Long Island, according to county officials -- 1,400 in Nassau and 675 in Suffolk -- and caused extensive damage to thousands more homes and businesses. Construction employment also fell in November as the storm and aftereffects like power outages and gasoline shortages disrupted work.
Insurance, aid boost jobsBut now, contractors and workers say, insurance company settlements and federal aid dollars have begun providing work for unemployed or underemployed construction tradespeople, many of whom might have remained idle through the industry's traditionally slow winter season.
At Charles Hoyler Electric in Babylon, six electricians were added to the staff of four after the storm, said owner Hoyler. "We have never had so many phone calls," he said a few weeks ago. Last week, he said, he was down to nine electricians in what he said was a lull as some homeowners waited for insurance company and government checks.
Sandy's destruction is likely to create work for years, said Pearl Kamer, chief economist of the Long Island Association, the Island's major business group. She noted that rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina continues more than seven years after that storm struck the Gulf of Mexico coast.
Nevertheless, there are limits, Kamer said, to how far the construction industry recovery can go. Many proposed public and private projects besides the Nassau Hub redevelopment are moving forward at a snail's pace, if at all -- the widening of Sagtikos Parkway, a third main-line track for the Long Island Rail Road and the private 9,100-unit Heartland housing and commercial project in Brentwood, to cite examples.
She also said that although housing prices are edging back up and sales are increasing, high costs for land don't bode well for new home construction on Long Island.
"I'm not sure there will be enough residential construction activity to re-employ all of those construction workers who lost their jobs," she said.
Demand attracts workersBut the demand for construction work now on Long Island is strong enough that it attracted Stephen Schuberth, a 29-year-old carpenter from upstate. "It's good to be back on my feet," said Schuberth, who is now rooming in West Islip and working full time for DaVinci Construction general contractors, based in Wantagh and West Bay Shore. Before Sandy, he said, he'd been unemployed for six months. "There's a lot of work," said Schuberth, who expects to be busy for many months at least.
At DaVinci, president Artie Cipoletti said his workforce has doubled to about 40, including Schuberth, and he expects in the spring to bring back another 40 of his workers who had been laid off. Cipoletti said rebuilding or repairing those 2,000 devastated homes and others damaged in the storm will put a "substantial number" of people back to work.
"All the remodelers are busy right now," he said. "The long-term effects probably are not going to be seen until the spring."
Sal Ferro, owner of Alure Home Improvements of East Meadow, said recently he and subcontractors had about 125 workers repairing storm-damaged homes, including about 10 specialists in demolition and mold remediation that he recently added. "There was an immediate influx of work," he said. "We're busy."
In the city, Denise Richardson, managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York Inc., said three of her member companies and two others, which normally do heavy public and commercial construction, have more than 1,000 of their workers in a city-run rapid-recovery program to make homes and apartments livable. "We have basically emptied the out-of-work lists that the various unions have," she said. "This is the first time in several years that we're seeing anything resembling full employment."
The group hopes for more work in the future, making storm mitigation improvements to infrastructure -- subways, railroads, wastewater treatment plants and power grids. But that work will depend on government funding. "The potential," she said, "is significant, [but] I think it's premature at this point to say this portends a period of robust employment in the construction industry."
To be sure, the home-reconstruction effort after Sandy is facing financial and bureaucratic hurdles, builders and remodelers said. Owners must grapple with building codes enacted after their old homes were built and, perhaps, find that insurance settlements don't fully cover replacement costs.
Hoyler said, for example, that new electric codes require more outlets, more lights, more wiring and more safety features than many older homes have, raising owners' financial burden.
Further, builders said, many homes that were flooded weren't covered by flood insurance.
Storm repairs are "going to put a big dent in our unemployment," said business manager Kevin Harvey of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 25, "but I don't know if it's going to put everybody back to work."
Industry struggled before Sandy
Construction jobs on LI as of October in each year
Construction jobs in NYC as of October in each year
SOURCE: NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR
Residential units authorized by building permits in Nassau and Suffolk
Jan-Nov 2012: 1,575
(The following numbers are all for the full year.)
SOURCE: U.S. CENSUS BUREAU