- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

ATLANTA (AP) — Hundreds of supply trucks rolled into Florida yesterday to help restock shelves at home improvement retailers as a crush of customers rushed to buy everything from plywood to generators in preparation for Hurricane Frances.

Some stores in Florida have remained open round-the-clock. Managers at the Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Companies Inc. report lines forming outside some stores and people waiting in parking lots for stores to open.

“We are having trouble keeping up with all of the trucks coming and going,” Paul Raines, Home Depot’s vice president in charge of operations in Florida, said as he toured stores in Palm Beach County. “The cell phones aren’t working real well right now. It’s just a lot of merchandise coming through.”

Home Depot and Lowe’s, the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 home improvement store chains, respectively, would not provide sales figures or customer numbers, but a Home Depot spokesman described the rush as “unprecedented.” Atlanta-based Home Depot has about 130 stores in Florida. Mooresville, N.C.-based Lowe’s has 65.

For instance, a Home Depot in Florida City, ground zero during Hurricane Andrew 12 years ago, more than doubled its daily sales on Tuesday, running out of generators and plywood and pushing $50,000 worth of lumber out its doors on that one day alone.

Home improvement stores in Florida also got a big boost in sales in the wake of Hurricane Charley in mid-August.

Right now, generators are in tight supply because Lowe’s shipped 25,000 of them to Florida after Charley hit. Other supplies being shipped include sheathing, duct tape, batteries and other materials and tools to help people protect their homes.

Once the storms have passed, Florida builders expect shortages of cement and some types of lumber to hamper rebuilding efforts in the wake of the hurricanes.

Both products face duties imposed after U.S. producers complained Mexican and Canadian competitors unfairly dumped their products on the American market. Duties on Mexican cement date to 1990 and on Canadian lumber, used to frame homes, to 2001.

“We have been experiencing extremely high prices for both of those two construction products for some time now. Prices were already high, and because the demand has increased, those prices will continue to rise,” said Edie Ousley, spokeswoman for the Florida Home Builders Association.

The Red Cross estimated that Charley destroyed more than 12,000 homes in Florida and damaged thousands more.

Even before the storms, builder groups had complained of material shortages. Rising demand from construction booms in the United States and abroad ratcheted up demand for products, especially cement.

“With cement, a bigger problem was not that price had gone up but that you couldn’t get it. It was rationed. Builders would have to schedule it weeks in advance, and if it rains on the day you are scheduled, you go to the back of the line,” said Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders in Washington.”It’s difficult to say what delays cost, but they are costly.”

The Associated General Contractors of America, an Alexandria-based group for commercial builders, in June — well before the threat of Charley or Frances — asked the Commerce Department to temporarily lift duties on cement from Mexico.

The Commerce Department did not return a call seeking comment, but it cannot suspend the duties unless domestic producers that won the protection agree to the action. The Bush administration is talking with U.S. and Mexican industries, as well as with the Mexican government.

The Portland Cement Association, an industry group, estimated that demand for cement will tail off during clean-up from Charley and Frances, but then spike during rebuilding efforts.

The duties on cement mostly affect Cemex, the top Mexican cement producer that, since 2000, also has become the top U.S. producer through acquisitions inside the country. The other top domestic suppliers are owned by Swiss and French firms.

“The industry is totally different than it was 14 years ago when anti-dumping duties went into place,” said John Bloom, chief economist for Cemex in Houston.

Staff writer Jeff Sparshott contributed to this report.

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