Pandemic adds time, cost to rebuild after Colo. wildfire

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In Colorado and other states hit by natural disasters this year, the pandemic has stoked additional uncertainty and created more obstacles for families trying to rebuild.

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Louisville, Colorado — The 23-year-old home of Rex and Barba Hickman near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains has turned into a black heap from the most devastating wildfire in Colorado history.

Before nearly 1,100 homes caught fire, Hickman would often hang out with neighbors on his patio, sharing funny stories over a glass of wine. But this is unlikely to happen again for years – delayed even more by the pandemic.

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“It’s part of the reason for the pain,” Barba Hickman, 65, said earlier this week. How long can it take for neighbors to once again enjoy a smooth mingle while sifting through the rubble and catching up.

Rebuilding is never easy or quick. Homeowners should deal with insurers, land surveyors, architects, etc. But in Colorado and other states hit by natural disasters this year, the pandemic has stoked additional uncertainty and created more roadblocks. A shortage of workers and raw materials would make reconstruction slower and more expensive.

“It’s going to take forever,” said Kelly Moye, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Association of Realtors.

Even without a pandemic, it took nearly seven years to fully rebuild after the 2012 fire that destroyed hundreds of homes in Colorado Springs, and homebuilders are still finishing work after the 2017 fire in Santa Rosa, Calif. are.

Compounding the stress for Colorado’s recent wildfire victims is an extremely tight housing market. With few homes for sale or rent, families are struggling to find temporary shelter.

“It’s a big part of the population that all need the same thing. And they all need it right now,” Moye said. “They can’t go half an hour away because the kids need to be in their school district.”

The tough road ahead for wildfire-ravaged Coloradans is also facing thousands of American families whose homes were damaged or destroyed by extreme weather last year, from tornadoes in the Midwest and Kentucky to the Gulf Coast and New Jersey. until the effects of Hurricane Ida.

Builders everywhere are waiting longer than usual to line up carpenters, electricians and plumbers, and these experts themselves are backing up waiting for parts.

From start to finish, it will typically take four to five months to build a 2,500-square-foot home in Denver. Now, that same project typically takes eight to 10 months, said John Gupta, principal at Zonda Advisory, a homebuilding market research firm based in Denver. The local surge in demand post-disaster adds to the problem.

On Friday, President Biden was due to visit the area outside Denver, where wildfires engulfed homes on December 30, causing an estimated $513 million in damage.

In addition to delaying reconstruction, the pandemic is also driving up costs. Robert Dietz, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders, said contractors are hard to come by amid a boom in remodeling, and lumber and steel are being cut short by supply-chain interruptions.

Dietz said lumber prices have risen from about $350 per 1,000 board feet before the pandemic to about $1,500. That means there could be an additional cost of $30,000-$40,000 for a typical home, he said.

The Colorado cities worst hit by last week’s wildfires are in an affluent area between Louisville and the college city of Superior, Denver and Boulder. Median home prices are more than double the national average, which stood at $416,900 in November, from $321,500 a year earlier.

Rising real estate prices can add another burden to families who have lost their homes to wildfires.

“The cost is likely to exceed the insured value of many destroyed structures,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist at Associated General Contractors of America.

Hickmans’ insurance claims adjuster said his policy would not cover the rebuilding of his home in the same way that he had. With a gas fireplace and wood-burning stove inside, and a front courtyard that became a gathering place for neighbors, the home was valued at over $1 million.

“Pandemics and supply chains drive up costs, and the insurance company doesn’t care,” Barba Hickman said.

Coloradans are not the only ones facing pandemic-era challenges that have added to an already stressful process of recovery from a natural disaster.

In December, a 200-mile line of tornadoes in Kentucky destroyed some rural small towns, displacing hundreds and killing dozens.

Bowling Green’s Cole Claiborne has found a contractor to repair torn pieces and a damaged roof from the corner of his house, and expects work to begin next week, a month after the disaster. “If it had happened in just one part of the county it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but it took a huge part of the city,” he said.

It’s too early for 32-year-old Claiborne to have a supply-chain headache, but he wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a problem. “I’m a high school teacher and we couldn’t get toner in our building for months,” he said.

Before Hurricane Ida ripped through the Gulf Coast—and then took its destruction in New Jersey—in late summer, construction contractors were already grappling with severe labor shortages and lack of supply chains. The damage done by Ida increased those odds.

Jeff Okrepki, whose home burned down in the 2017 Santa Rosa fire, said families starting to rebuild will benefit from working together, sharing information and being extremely patient. “There’s a lot that goes into building a house from the ground up and most of us have no experience at all,” said Okrepki, who moved into his new home in early 2020.

In times of unprecedented economic uncertainty, a challenge is arising for builders. The US economy bounced back with unexpected momentum from a brief but painful recession in the spring of 2020, taking many businesses by surprise and forcing them to find supplies and recall workers last year.

But it is not clear how long the supply and labor shortage will last. Omicron and other COVID-19 variants may prompt more Americans to stay home as a health precaution. This could dent economic growth – but could potentially quell inflation and reduce labor and material shortages.

Dietz, the economist, believes the labor crisis will ease construction material shortages, especially in fast-growing regions such as the mountain states and the US South.

For now, Hickman is taking some solace in retiring and has more time than many others to devote to rebuilding. He focused this past week on finding a place to rent and is even considering relocating to Denver, about 20 miles to the southeast.

With what she’s learned over the past week, Barba Hickman is urging her older kids to review their insurance policies because “the time to argue about this is before your house burns down.”

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Associated Press writers Dylan Lowan in Louisville, Kentucky, Wayne Parry in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco and Alex Vega in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Nieberg is a core member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that hires journalists to report on issues covered in local newsrooms.

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