About two years ago, when framing contractor Rob White saw the first signs of a housing construction downturn in Minnesota, he employed 25 workers on five crews. Now, he is down to three workers, including himself, and they were busy in Hugo on Wednesday framing a new house to replace one demolished by last month's tornado.

"It's a big boost for us right now, but I'd rather not see these things happen," said builder Scott Olmstead, who hired White and his company, YT Construction of St. Francis, to frame the two-story house on 195th Avenue.

Builders and contractors who have taken huge financial losses in recent years are finding some relief in Hugo and other east- and north-metro cities where marauding spring storms hammered thousands of houses.

Building permits for remodeling -- the most common permits issued to repair storm damage -- show the burst of new work. Hugo building inspectors issued about 900 permits since Jan. 1, most after the tornado hit the city's northern neighborhoods on May 25. By comparison, the city had issued only 70 permits in the same period last year.

In addition, said building inspector John Benson, the number of building contractors in Hugo tripled after the storm.

"We've got our work cut out for us," he said of the city's inspections crew.

It's difficult to measure the extent of reconstruction related to storms.

Statewide building associations don't track permits for remodeling, and homeowners often elect to have other improvements done to their home as long as workers are repairing storm damage.

But it's clear that cleanup from the storms helped many contractors who otherwise couldn't find much work, said Wendy Danks of Builders Association of the Twin Cities.

"They're not as crabby as they were a few months ago," she said.

Contractors working in storm-damaged areas have increased their business significantly in the past month, said Richard Riemersma of Imperial Homes, a building company in Shoreview. Many houses that Imperial Homes built in the Centerville and Lino Lakes areas were damaged and workers are busy repairing them, he said. The company started doing more remodeling and home additions a few years ago when the market for new houses soured. Riemersma said builders and contractors have to do that to survive.

In Lino Lakes, one of the north-metro cities hit hardest by hail, building permits soared in the month since the storm hit, said Paul Bengtson, the city's associate planner. In a single month, Lino Lakes issued 633 permits, compared with just 17 in the same period last year. He said the majority of those permits relate to the May storm.

Two framers, Jeremy Marpoe and Kevin Burke, who work for Infinite Builders in Princeton, were restoring a garage on Fenway Avenue N. in Hugo on Wednesday.

"This is the biggest mess I've ever seen," said Marpoe, who could see damaged houses in every direction from the roof. Burke, who has been framing houses for 22 years, said he and Marpoe have fortified five other houses in the tornado area by replacing portions of weak walls and roofs.

Across the street was contractor Chris Bretheim of Cover-It-All, a siding, roofing and windows company from Lindstrom. He said he has never asked for a down payment from a homeowner before beginning work and he doesn't plan to start now.

"They've been through enough," Bretheim said of the tornado victims. He had three crews working in Hugo on Wednesday and already had completed work on six houses.

"It looks kind of empty," homeowner Tim Gabrio said of his neighborhood, where many houses are abandoned because they're unstable and others are now completely gone.

Gabrio and his wife, Pam, got a new roof on their townhouse on Tuesday but three windows remain boarded up and they've got a hole in the dining room wall. "We're pretty happy with the way things are going," Tim Gabrio said. "We have nothing to complain about."

Another homeowner, Roland Guareschi, said he is pleased with the pace of reconstruction in the neighborhood. His builder, he said, "seems focused on getting things done in a timely fashion." Guareschi said that his only concern is that the volume of junk mail offers for home reconstruction has tripled.

Bretheim cautioned home- owners to avoid contractors who seem in a hurry and don't ask how the customer wants the job done. "It should be, 'What do you want me to do?' rather than the storm-chasers who come from out of state and want their money," he said.

Some of the Hugo houses are being demolished to make way for new construction. On 195th Avenue on Wednesday, a shovel that Dominick Russo of Professional Ground Maintenance operated took big bites out of the remains of a kitchen. With one slap of the bucket he knocked the front wall down.

Co-worker Don Bordstrom said it bothered him to find people's personal belongings in the storm debris. And nearby, carpenter Mike Fehrman of YT Construction said he felt sick thinking about the tornado-related death of 2-year-old Nathaniel Prindle, who was blown into a pond behind his family's house. Fehrman has a 16-month-old son.

Olmstead, the builder, said it's tough feeling good about finding work when people have suffered so much. He is rebuilding two houses in the tornado area from the foundation up, and might do two more.

For the time being, builders and contractors working in the storm zones have some relief from a miserable housing economy, said Pam Perry Weaver of Builders Association of Minnesota.

"This is the most unusual downturn they've seen. It's going on longer than is expected, causing a lot of pain," she said.

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554