Batten down the backhoes — and the copper wire and plywood while you’re at it. High demand for building materials in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast and overseas markets and the soaring costs of scrap metals are fueling thefts at building sites across the nation, contractors and police say.
Thieves from California to Florida are stripping almost everything not nailed down at some building sites, hauling away appliances, bulldozers and even the copper used in electrical circuitry. In Moorpark, Calif., the site of a new police station was hit twice, says Sgt. Jerry Weaver of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.
«We believe it’s a multibillion-dollar-a-year problem throughout the U.S.,» says Earl Gunnerson, executive director of the Construction Industry Crime Prevention Program of Southern California.
Thefts add at least 1% to the sale price of a new home, says Gobal Ahluwalia, staff vice president for research of the National Association of Home Builders. That could be a particular problem in regions where housing prices already are beyond the reach of many families.
«If costs increase 20%, and a portion of that cost increase is attributable to theft, that would be felt by home buyers,» says Joseph Perkins, president of the Home Builders Association of Northern California.
The need for materials to rebuild homes destroyed in August by Hurricane Katrina and heightened demand in China and other countries have expanded the market for stolen, bargain-priced goods, police and contractors say.
«It’s just gotten a lot worse in the last six to eight months, and we’re assuming it’s because building materials have gone up (in price),» says Kathy Day, spokeswoman for the Anchorage Home Builders Association. «Obviously, with the hurricanes, there’s a lot more demand.»
No comprehensive national statistics about theft of materials are available, but it is a particular problem in Texas, California and Florida because of the large amount of construction taking place there, Gunnerson says. Signs of the surge:
*Hurricane Katrina and other storms helped drive a 22% increase in thefts of heavy construction equipment in Gulf Coast states from Florida to Texas from September through November compared with the same period in 2004, according to an analysis by the National Equipment Register, which tracks such thefts. «It must (have) something to do with the hurricanes,» says David Shillingford, the register’s president. «Our estimate is that those numbers will go up because there’s a lot of theft that’s not yet made it into the system because of the disorganization and chaos» in parts of the Gulf Coast.
*Authorities in Ventura County, Calif., broke up a ring that allegedly stole $4 million in equipment during burglaries at sites around Sacramento, Las Vegas and parts of Arizona. Seventeen people face felony charges of burglary and receiving stolen property, Weaver says.
* In Fargo, N.D., thieves this month used a forklift to steal 20,000 pounds of copper worth $40,000 from the site of a new school. The copper was recovered two days later, says Tom Swift, owner of Rickard Electric. Six other contractors have reported thefts there since July.