MIAMI -- Every time Paul Mehok of National Nail Corp. sees a hurricane coming toward the Southeast, he feels "this little guilt twinge."
"People getting hurt, their houses getting destroyed. ... At least we can help a little bit," said Mehok, a vice president of sales in Atlanta for one of the largest nail distributors in the country. He realizes that while most people dread hurricanes, they're a gold mine for his business and others like roofers, air conditioning contractors and furniture retailers that expect to boom after Hurricanes Charley and Frances.
The bustling rebuilding sector is even expected to help offset damage to hard-hit industries such as agriculture and tourism, keeping Florida's $576 billion economy zipping along at an expected 5 percent to 5.5 percent growth rate this year, according to analysts and state projections.
Two direct hurricane hits within a month, and an even-stronger Ivan possibly heading toward Florida, mean that many businesses are scrambling to find enough workers to finish jobs. Billions of dollars in insurance money are expected to be spent on rebuilding in Florida, as well as at least $2 billion in federal aid approved Wednesday by President Bush.
Florida contractors expect Charley and Frances will keep them bustling for about four years, said Steve Munnell, executive director of the Florida Roofing, Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association Inc. Charley severely damaged or destroyed more than 30,000 homes.
"There's just hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses that need to be reroofed," Munnell said. He expects construction contractors in the state could hire another 15,000 workers.
Dimensional Roof Systems in Orlando normally has about $2 million in contracts a year, but that should rise to between $10 million and $15 million this year, company owner Jim Cheshire said.
"We have people that'll call five times a day trying to convince you to come out there," he said, noting that he and his 15 workers can't meet demand right now.
All those new and damaged roofs need nails, and National Nail is already sending out truckloads more to Florida.
The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company's southeastern region normally sells about $180,000 worth of nails a month, but sold about $310,000 last month because of Charley, Mehok said. After Frances and with Ivan on the way, sales could go even higher, he said.
At Air Around the Clock Air Conditioning, business is already up about 25 percent, with repairmen struggling to get to 1,000 calls a day, operations manager Scott Davis said. The Sunrise-based company normally lays off some of its 95 workers as weather cools down in the fall and winter, but that won't happen this year, he said.
The hurricanes have made business so hot at Bill Aldrich's tool rental shop that he has expanded into sales. The owner of Aldrich Rent-all in North Palm Beach ordered 17 new generators to sell for about $2,000 a piece. "If I'd have had 100, I could have sold them all," he said.
The hurricanes left thousands or pieces of furniture water-logged or ripped apart, so retailers are getting ready for orders.
The Badcock Home Furniture chain, one of the largest in the South, is considering ordering more beds, mattresses and floor coverings to meet demand, said William Daughtrey, executive vice president of marketing for W.S. Badcock Corp. in Mulberry, Fla.
All of this activity should keep the state's economic growth on track, analysts said. Florida's economy grew at an estimated 3.9 percent last year and is expected to do better this year, according to estimates for Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private economic development agency.
Florida's unemployment rate was at 4.4 percent in July and "may tick up a bit as result of the initial unemployment gains, but we'll get back to strong trends of growth in 3 or 4 months," said Tony Villamil, a Coral Gables economist and an economic adviser to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
Villamil predicted a peak jobless rate of about 5 percent because about 20,000 jobs were lost as Charley and Frances destroyed some businesses. But new construction jobs should be created in droves, he said.
Florida's unemployment rate was at 9 percent in August 1992, the month Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead and other areas of South Florida. A year later, the jobless rate was down to 7.4 percent, helped by a construction boom and an overall economic expansion.
Rebuilding in Florida could boost the U.S. economy in the second half, but it would probably increase gross domestic product by less than a quarter of a point, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com.
Some companies that seem like they'd benefit from hurricane recovery say they actually have a neutral impact on business.
Ford Motor Co. expects that dealerships that make extra sales to replace destroyed or damage vehicles will be offset by showrooms that were closed during and after the storm, said George Pipas, the top U.S. sales analyst at the No. 2 U.S. auto maker.
Home Depot Inc. sells a lot more hurricane supplies like tarps and generators, but temporary store closures and the cost of putting up more than 1,000 workers from other states to reopen those stores essentially offsets benefits, spokesman Don Harrison said.
Florida hotels and motels are busy renting rooms to evacuees and repair workers sent to damaged areas, but it's too early to tell if that will offset the losses from tourists staying away from the state, said Thomas A. Waits, president and CEO of the Florida Hotel and Motel Association.
But Villamil said even the hit tourism took will be temporary, because the theme parks and beaches are still there.
"Overall, if you look at the macro side, most of Florida's infrastructure was left unscathed," he said.
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