Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, Chris Alexander has his hands full.
He owns C. Alexander Building and Maintenance and has become one of a host of area contractors who find themselves piecing the shore back together.
“Right now it’s nuts,” Alexander said Wednesday. “Very busy. I don’t have a handle on it right now, because it’s really out of hand.”
Economic analysts and federal statistics suggest that construction workers will benefit over the next year as the state and region recover from Hurricane Sandy, while those who work in tourism will most likely suffer as people stay away from places perceived as storm-damaged.
Alexander’s company maintains shore properties for owners who live elsewhere. The firm does everything from construction and renovation to watering outdoor plants and running down to city hall to pick up beach badges.
Right now, though, Alexander said, workers are taking out water-damaged wallboard, airing out the homes and hopefully putting them all back together before the owners come down in May. That Memorial Day deadline, he said, “that’s the big challenge.”
Joel Naroff, owner of Naroff Economic Advisors, said the construction industry and the various trades stand to benefit from the reconstruction following Sandy, which, with an estimated $50 billion in damage, is the nation’s second most costly storm, behind Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
Local construction has shrunk since the housing market collapsed several years ago. Statistics from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the number of people involved in privately funded construction in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland County dropped almost 37 percent between June 2006 and March 2012, the latest available figures. That is a cumulative decrease of 5,023 jobs.
Local construction wages also dipped, but have recovered, and averaged between $805 and $1,232 a week in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties last year.
Construction jobs are considered vital to the national economy. Averaging $28.36 per hour, they pay more than the average U.S. private-sector job, $23.58, and far more than jobs in leisure and hospitality, $16.43, and in restaurants and hotels, $13.35.
In the months after Hurricane Katrina, at $81 billion in damage the nation’s most expensive hurricane, construction employment soared in Louisiana and Mississippi, the two hardest-hit states, as construction workers poured in from around the country.
Combined private construction employment in those states peaked at 200,835 in June 2008, almost 16 percent or 27,000 jobs higher than the month before the storm. It remained higher than pre-storm totals until December 2009, more than four years after the storm.
Weekly construction wages also rose steadily between 2005 and 2011, climbing by more than 41 percent to $980 in Louisiana and by almost 17 percent to $797 in Mississippi.
Jobs in construction typically also lead to jobs in related fields, such as architecture, real estate sales, building supplies and appliances.
This construction, Naroff said, could essentially serve as a six-to-twelve month bridge to an economic recovery.
Furthermore, he said, if the wave of construction ends up replacing older homes with new construction, it could lead to higher property values at the shore.
But the storm may be another story for tourism.
Hurricane Katrina obliterated seaside towns with 30-foot-high floodwaters. It devastated the Mississippi and Louisiana casino industry, at the time the nation’s third and fifth largest gaming jurisdictions with combined gross revenue of $4.9 billion in 2004.
Revenue fell by almost 24 percent to $3.8 billion in 2005, after the storm destroyed several casinos. But it rebounded to $5.1 billion the following year.
Tourism employment fell and stayed down, losing 38,100 jobs, and falling almost 13 percent the month after the hurricane hit. Those jobs ebbed that December, down more than 15 percent, or 52,100, from their pre-storm highs.
Tourism jobs were still down into the next summer, nine months on. Even today, the number of Mississippi and Louisiana jobs in leisure and hospitality has not returned to pre-storm levels.
Naroff said in New Jersey many tourism jobs are already essentially part-time, and when restaurants and associated businesses close there is no other place to turn.
“Those part-time workers are just out of jobs,” Naroff said. “The owners, who knows how many of them will be able to reopen their businesses.”
This comes as the local tourism economy has shed jobs. Tourism peaked in July 2006 at 85,550 jobs in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. But total employment in leisure and hospitality fell by more than 14 percent in July 2011, the most recent comparable month, a loss of almost 12,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Average tourism wages have largely stagnated at the same time, rising $38 per week between the summer of 2006 and 2011 in Cape May County, $24 per week in Cumberland County and not at all in Atlantic County.
The big question, Naroff said, was the impact of Sandy on the more financially tenuous casinos. Atlantic City casinos did not suffer anywhere near the physical damage that Louisiana and Mississippi casinos did, but they have also seen sharp revenue declines since 2006.
“The Boardwalk is still there,” Naroff said, despite erroneous reports that it was demolished. “But image matters. I think Atlantic City was slow ramping up the PR on it, and I still don’t think it’s done a great jobs in making people understand that Atlantic City is Atlantic City the way it was.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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