VOL. 111 | NO. 33 | Tuesday, February 18, 1997
lj 10/5 cates
Rain, rain go away
Second-wettest year in Memphis history has local builders wringing their hands
By LAURIE JOHNSON
The Daily News
For Memphis contractors, the childhood chant, "Rain, rain, go away, come again another day," has evolved into something of a prayer, albeit one with a slightly different ending something more along the lines of "and dont come back!"
According to the National Weather Service, which has tracked rainfall levels in the Memphis area since 1872, 1996 was the second-wettest year on record.
Last year, Memphis received 76.01 inches of rainfall, which is almost 24 inches above normal, and 102 rain days, said Larry Boyd, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The only year to receive more was 1957, which had 76.85 inches, he said. In 1995, Memphis received 56.71 inches of rainfall.
Although construction activity generally slows during the dead of winter, inordinate amounts of rainfall can make it particularly difficult for those in the building profession.
"I dont think theres been any question about it that this has put everybody in the construction business behind schedule on different jobs, depending on the scope of the job," said Chris Woods, owner of Chris Woods Construction Inc.
"Anybody who had a project coming out of the ground that involved flat work of any sort or paving has been dead in the water no pun intended," said Dan Grinder, vice president of Memphis commercial construction firm Grinder Taber & Grinder Inc. "I cant recall when weve had worse weather conditions."
What has hurt this year has been an extraordinarily rainy fall season, builders said.
"October, November and December are typically some of the most productive months of the year for construction in Memphis," Grinder said. "The temperatures are mild, so from a workmans standpoint, its a comfortable time to work.
"They are also typically the driest months of the year. But this year we were just deluged."
According to the National Weather Service, rainfall during the last three months of 1996 totaled 24.75 inches, compared to 14.59 inches recorded during the same period in 1995.
The stages of construction most affected by rainfall unfortunately are the ones at the beginning of a job, such as grading and other dirt work and the laying of slab. Paving work also is affected.
Moisture in the soil is a critical issue, because concrete and asphalt cannot be poured unless the ground is thoroughly dry and properly tamped down.
"If you attempt to pour concrete on soil thats too moist, or if you attempt to lay a parking lot under the same conditions, the end product greatly suffers," Grinder said.
Excessive rain is a particular problem during the winter. Moisture tends to stay in the ground longer because the ground is alternately freezing and thawing out.
"When the ground actually freezes and then thaws back out, it makes the ground expand in such a way that it holds more moisture," said Ken Whitmore, vice president of Design Specialties & Construction Inc. "During the summer if you get a rain, after a couple of windy days youre dry, but in the winter, thats not the case."
So, whats a builder to do?
Most end up just waiting it out.
"Weve got one in Fayette County that were probably six weeks behind schedule on, mainly because it involves earthwork," Woods said. "And we have one in Bartlett that were probably three to four weeks behind on."
"Over the past several years, wed had a lot of inside work mixed with outside work, so even if the weather slowed a particular project down outside, it wasnt too detrimental to us," Whitmore said. "But this year, all of our projects are outdoors, so its hurt us quite a bit."
On one project, a concession and restroom facility for a new ball field in Germantown, Whitmore attempted to work around the weather and meet a January deadline by erecting a tent of sorts around the structure with scaffolding and plastic sheeting.
"It didnt really work out as well as we had planned it. We had some bad storms, so we ended up just taking it down," he said. "It helped some but it wasnt worth all the money we spent."
"People havent been able to do much of anything for three or four months," said Memphis residential builder Jere Bowden, president of Bowden Building. "When youre building, youre trying to keep your cycle time shorter, not longer."
According to Shelby County code enforcement records, 739 single-family residential permits were filed during the last quarter of 1996, compared with 900 filed during the same time period the previous year.
Builders themselves are not the only ones dealing with the frustration of rainy day construction holdups. Their employees, as well as their clients, are feeling the pinch as well.
"This has been really tough on our people," Grinder said. "And the unfortunate reality of it is that while they didnt get nearly as many hours as they would have under ordinary circumstances, they cant go anyplace else and work because everybody is having to deal with the same conditions."
"To make up for the rain days, were having to work a lot of Saturdays," Woods said. "Normally, Saturdays would be an overtime day, but now its just a day were letting our people work in order to help them make ends meet."
The delays also affect project financing.
"Generally, the normal construction loan period is six months and usually, thats enough time," said Diane Tipton, assistant vice president of the Goodman Road branch of Trustmark National Bank.
"But with all this rain, depending on the stage of construction when all the rain hit, we are expecting that there are going to be some people whose projects go past the six month schedule, and we will just have to work with them."
Although the sun has been shining for the last several days, according to the National Weather Service, the rainy day trend has extended into 1997.
In January, Memphis received 4.37 inches of rain, an amount slightly above the norm of 3.37 inches.
"Who knows about weather? You just have to continue to hope that it will break. If you werent a blind optimist, you wouldnt be a contractor in the first place," Grinder said.