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.
Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Association, figures the town's lodging industry lost close to $3.8 million in room revenue for Friday and Saturday nights. The tourist destination has 9,700 rooms, and the rates average $195 a night, Jones said.
"It will definitely put a dent. We would have been sold-out," Jones said. "Luckily, the summer has been a decent summer, so business has been good up to this point."
Ocean City spokeswoman Donna Abbott said the town won't know how much it lost in room and food tax revenues for another month.
But while businesses lost about two days' worth of sales, some saw a spike just before the evacuation order took effect.
As Fisher's Popcorn manager Douglas Hooker nailed boards to the windows Thursday evening, he watched lines of customers stretching outside the shop. It turned into one of the busiest nights of the entire summer, he said.
"We were really, really busy," Hooker said. "People were getting ready to leave, and I don't know if people didn't think we'd be here after the storm or what. We had four or five lines across the boardwalk the entire night."
Fisher's, which like other boardwalk businesses was spared significant damage, reopened at 1 p.m. Sunday, and "we already had people waiting in line," Hooker said.
"I would say we held our own as far as the days we lost. The weather reports were very grim, but it ended up being not that bad at all."
Market House at City Dock in Annapolis closed over the weekend after all the vendors moved their heavy equipment and inventory out in trucks Saturday in anticipation of high storm surges.
"This would have been the best two days since we opened in July," said Richard Sharoff, whose company manages the market. He said the weekend typically represents 40 percent of weekly revenues.
Supermarkets reported brisk sales Friday and Saturday as residents stocked up on bread, water and flashlights.
Giant Food relied on backup generators to keep stores open in areas with power outages, spokesman Jamie Miller said.
"We got hit very, very hard on Friday, but were able to replenish pretty well on Saturday," Miller said. "Bottled water went very quickly, and batteries, and most of the staple items like bread. But for the most part, we got the trucks out early on Saturday and did a good job of replenishing stores."
While power outages and damage left some businesses closed over the weekend, other restaurants and retailers reported larger-than-usual crowds Sunday.
Towson Town Center and White Marsh Mall saw strong foot traffic, and restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's reported increased sales compared with a typical Sunday, said Annie Wildasin, senior marketing manager for the shopping centers. Both malls closed an hour or so early on Saturday.
Jerry Mazurowski, general manager at the Greene Turtle restaurant in Hunt Valley, said it racked up double its normal sales on Sunday, making up for a slow Saturday. The restaurant, which did not lose power, remained opened for normal weekend hours.
Mazurowski expected increased sales and crowds Monday, given that surrounding neighborhoods were still out of power and schools in the region did not open.
"Being that people don't have the ability to eat at home, we expect them to be here," Mazurowski said. "Hopefully, a strong Monday will start the week strong."
Officials at the state fair, too, hope the traffic picks up as the week progresses.
A challenge remains: Work continues on damage to the light rail line. Until it is repaired, passengers are being ferried on buses from North Avenue to Hunt Valley.
With forecasts calling for pleasant weather, Miller remained optimistic.
"Maybe the people who didn't come this past Sunday will come next Sunday," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun