Catching the bus

Passengers wait for the bus to pick them up at the Hunt Valley light rail station, which is closed from North Avenue to Hunt Valley due to storm damage. Instead of shopping, eating out and spending money at summer attractions over the weekend, many Marylanders stayed home. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / August 30, 2011)

Hurricane Irene did not inflict as much damage in Maryland as officials and residents had feared. But the storm came at a bad time for many businesses.

Instead of shopping, eating out and spending money at summer attractions over the weekend, customers stayed home. Many businesses were hit with lower sales — or none at all, in some cases.

Ocean City and other Eastern Shore attractions lost a crucial late-summer weekend when local residents and visitors evacuated. Some businesses that tried to reopen Sunday and Monday remained in the dark with power outages or struggled to replenish depleted stocks.

State officials have not determined Irene's economic impact. The Silver Spring research firm Kinetic Analysis Corp. estimated the cost of lost business, property damage and cleanup in Maryland will reach $151 million.

In harder-hit North Carolina, New Jersey and New York, the firm estimated losses ranging from $1 billion to $2 billion in each state. In all, Kinetic Analysis reported, Irene could cost the United States $7 billion.

The Insurance Information Institute put the total losses at $15 billion to $20 billion. But in a $14 trillion economy, institute President Robert Hartwig said, that loss is not going to have a significant impact on the Gross Domestic Product.

The cost of the storm won't come close to the $830 million in estimated losses Maryland suffered during the twin snowstorms of February 2010. Nor will it reach the $350 million lost in Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.

Whatever the cost, the federal government will help with the tab. President Barack Obama has declared a federal emergency in Maryland, enabling the state to tap federal assets to supplement its response.

Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said Irene was largely "a nonevent" for the region's economy. Some businesses probably even got a short-term boost, he said.

"People now have all kinds of bottled waters, cold cuts and other things they otherwise wouldn't have bought," he said. "We have a case of bottled water that, given the sports season's over, will be in our basement for a while. … Perversely, there might have been more spending on Saturday than there otherwise would have been as people went out to stock up for this."

Maryland Insurance Commissioner Therese M. Goldsmith said her agency had been taking reports from property and casualty insurers. One insurer received 500 claims as of Sunday night, while another reported about 1,400 claims by Monday morning, she said.

Goldsmith said those figures "may increase dramatically" once residents get their phone service back and can contact insurers, or after evacuees return home and discover damage.

The Maryland State Fair lost much of its opening weekend business when it closed early Saturday. So officials launched a promotion through Tuesday, offering 2-for-1 admission and ride specials in the hope of attracting visitors to the fairgrounds in Timonium.

They say it's crucial that they make up for sales lost on Saturday and Sunday because the fair's two weekends represent 75 percent of revenue earned by the annual event. The fair runs through Labor Day.

F. Grove Miller, chairman of the fair's board of directors, said he did not yet know the cost of closing early on Saturday and having fewer visitors than expected on Sunday when the fair reopened.

"We know that we're way down for the start of the fair, and we're eternally optimistic that we think we could slowly make it up," he said.

Tourism officials from Ocean City and other resorts along the Eastern Shore, which survived the storm largely unscathed, are urging visitors to return to the beach as the holiday weekend approaches. Ocean City reopened to visitors Sunday afternoon.

"We're all ready, bracing for a busy Labor Day weekend," said Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism.

Ocean City was a virtual ghost town after tourists were ordered to evacuate Friday. Not only did businesses that count on the summer beach season suffer, so did local jurisdictions that lost out on tax revenue.