Early reviews are mixed, but this much is certain: Pipe and manufactured housing are very much in demand as government and business leaders continue to sort through the mess left behind by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Various pipe and vinyl siding makers are reporting different levels of activity at this early stage, but all agree that plastics manufacturing stands to gain from the massive task of rebuilding more than 90,000 square miles' worth of decimated Gulf Coast communities.
It will take months, perhaps years, for the bulk of the work to commence, but meanwhile, government officials are scrambling to gather as much temporary housing as possible. The need for shelter is putting added demand on manufactured housing producers and their auxiliary parts suppliers - particularly makers of vinyl siding.
Some in the industry, like the Washington-based Vinyl Siding Institute Inc. and Kearney, Mo.-based extruder Variform Inc., said it's simply too early to know the full scope of siding demand.
Others, like Bristol, Ind.-based custom molder Ameri-Kart Corp. and vinyl siding producer Heartland Building Products Inc. in Booneville, Miss., are reporting banner sales numbers for September.
``September was the largest September in Heartland's history in terms of volume,'' said President Jerry Massa. ``And October is extremely strong. We have a bigger backlog than we've had for probably three years.''
Ameri-Kart Chief Executive Eric Gottuso echoed those sentiments.
``We just had the best order month in the history of the company for our [recreational vehicle] products business,'' he said. ``It's been pretty unbelievable.''
It's possible down the line, Massa said, that some building products could be in short supply.
``There's no tremendous abundance of any of these products,'' he said. ``A lot of them are going to Asia - China in particular. As this demand picks up, that spike may create a short-term issue on availability of building products.''
Despite the upsurge in business for various manufacturers, no one is going to get rich from the hurricane recovery, officials said.
Mike Kern, executive vice president of Fremont, Ohio-based Resource Materials Corp.'s exterior cladding group, and Jim Ziminski, president of Columbus, Ohio-based Crane Performance Siding, said they do not expect a major windfall for anyone.
The two hurricanes' impact on raw materials prices and availability is imposing price increases on purchasers of plastic products and eating into the profit margins of those who produce them. The industry remains uncertain as to when resin prices might stabilize.
The results are market conditions never before seen by long-time manufacturers.
``I've never seen this kind of condition and I've been in the industry since 1978,'' Massa said. ``This is unprecedented.''
Jim Abel, chief financial officer for Beachwood, Ohio-based PVC pipe maker Lamson & Sessions, described the volatile resin market, combined with skyrocketing energy costs, as ``historic.''
``Everyone seems pretty satisfied that we're going to have elevated energy costs,'' Abel said. ``That said, you couple that with potential material shortages, and you're creating demand conditions that won't subside until [resin makers] get back to running at normal capacity levels.
``Whether that takes two weeks, four weeks, or two months remains to be seen.''
Abel said September is typically a strong month for Lamson & Sessions, but increased sales figures probably are attributable to the post-storm rebuilding effort. Materials-shortage fears should be credited for the business boost as well, he said.
``A lot of people are buying in anticipation of shortages,'' he said. ``There's pent-up demand and almost panic-buying in some areas.''
Bob Walker, executive director of UniBell PVC Pipe Association in Dallas, said UniBell is in the midst of working with Philadelphia-based Water and Sewer Distributors of America to coordinate the delivery and installation of an unspecified amount of underground pipe to hurricane-affected areas.
``We're definitely getting supplies lined up,'' Walker said. ``We're confident we're going to get this done.''
More specifics about buried piping and its role in rebuilding the Gulf Coast's infrastructure will emerge in the coming days and weeks, he said.