Sandy prompts many closures, but some are open for business

Some of the businesses along Thames Street in Fells Point are sandbagged and taped, including Riptide by the Bay.
Some of the businesses along Thames Street in Fells Point are sandbagged and taped, including Riptide by the Bay. (Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

As much of the Baltimore region shut down, some businesses made sure they could stay open — come hurricane and high water.

The Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel brought in sandbags, ordered $30,000 in extra food and arranged for employees to stay overnight for the duration of the storm. The owner of Kooper's Tavern and two other Fells Point bars prepared to put his workers up Monday and Tuesday nights in his bed-and-breakfast, conveniently emptied by cancellations. Safeway rearranged shifts as it trucked in ice and extra bottled water to its grocery stores.

And Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant pushed ahead with its unfortunately timed grand opening Monday in Harbor East, relying on workers who live close enough to the Baltimore neighborhood to get in and back without problems.

"We'd much rather be opening to a nice, bright, sunny day," said Arthur Forgette, regional manager for Gordon Biersch.

But with dire weather forecasts and large-scale shutdowns — schools, government offices, the New York Stock Exchange, public transportation and the Port of Baltimore's public marine terminals, to name a few — many companies threw in the towel. And that was before Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared that all city roads would be closed to nonemergency travel from 6 p.m. Monday until at least noon Tuesday.

Starbucks closed nearly 1,000 coffee shops between Virginia and Maine by 4 p.m. Monday. McCormick, the Sparks spice maker, shut down at noon. General Motors' White Marsh plant let its early shift employees go two hours early, canceled the late shift and planned on remaining closed Tuesday. And a number of downtown offices were weekend-vacant, or close to it.

"The streets are pretty empty," said Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, as he searched for bread and other necessities Monday. (His employer, which runs the downtown benefits district, was closed.) "I think a lot of people have gotten the message loud and clear that this storm is getting worse before it's getting better, and you don't want to be caught out in it."

Some who work for companies that didn't close Monday — or didn't initially plan to close — were not at all happy. Twitter, the social-media site, was replete with complaints.

"The New York stock exchange is closed and I still have to report to work!" one Baltimore resident tweeted. "Something is wrong with this picture! Thanks #Sandy"

Three hours later, she updated: "Someone had an epiphany I'm getting off at 12!!"

Sort-of-closed was common Monday. Baltimore-based investment company T. Rowe Price was largely shut for the day at its local locations, but bond trading took place until noon, so some traders and essential staff worked Monday morning, said spokesman Edward Giltenan.

At Legg Mason, Baltimore's other large investment company, offices were open in the morning and some employees who could walk or drive a short distance were at their desks, said spokeswoman Mary Athridge.

"Most people worked from home," she said, adding that employees can remotely access their desktops.

That meant a lot less potential traffic for Gordon Biersch, the just-opened restaurant — it's next door to Legg Mason. The restaurant had 30 patrons at 12:30 p.m., far from a typical opening day.

"The business impact was pretty major for us … and I imagine it will be the same case tomorrow," Forgette said Monday afternoon. Around 5 p.m., the restaurant was getting ready to close — nearly seven hours early.

A majority of restaurants on Baltimore's east side were shut tight by midafternoon, from Bo Brooks to Sip & Bite. Five Guys in Brewers Hill still was serving burgers, but employees were taking the last orders. The mix of local and chain restaurants nearby was dark, guarded by piles of sandbags in front of the doors.

In Fells Point, a steady stream of people ducked into Kooper's. Most ordered one of the day's special drinks: a hurricane or a dark and stormy.

Owner Patrick Russell said Hurricane Isabel almost did the bar in nine years ago, draining his business savings from $75,000 to $25,000. One of the problems: Water levels rose so high that transformers blew, knocking out his electricity. No power meant no hot water, and no hot water meant he wasn't allowed to sell food. He donated it all to police and other emergency workers.

"I honestly thought I wasn't going to make it," Russell said. "I ended up putting backup generators in my building so if there's another surge like that again, we're good to go."

The Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel has a backup generator, too — plus $30,000 in extra food and thousands of pounds of ice for the freezers. About 75 of its employees slept there overnight Sunday to make sure they would be at the hotel before the storm hit.

But the timing was lousy, not that there's ever a great time for a hurricane.

"We had planned for a very, very busy week, with a lot of groups in the hotel, and unfortunately some of those folks are having a hard time getting in from other cities," said Robert Allen, the hotel's general manager.

There's a winners-and-losers aspect to most bad weather. While the storm will likely cost millions in lost output, productivity and consumer spending, it could give a boost to companies that repair damage, said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

"Construction workers have had some of the most difficult times in recent years with the housing bust," he said. "So to put some of the carpenters and plumbers and welders and other construction workers back to work when the storm is done is always beneficial to the economy."

And then there are the stores selling bad-weather essentials — busy, busy, busy. Safeway sent truckloads of extra ice to its grocery stores where power outages are expected to be the most severe, including supermarkets in Edgewater, Arnold, Canton, Bel Air, Towson and Ellicott City. After the extra orders of bottled water sold out, the chain was reordering and restocking warehouses for shipments that went out Monday.

Gregory A. Ten Eyck, spokesman for Safeway's Eastern Division, said trucks were able to make it over the Bay Bridge to supply Eastern Shore stores before the winds picked up, but making deliveries anywhere would become more difficult as the storm worsened. Staying at full staff is harder than normal, too.

"So many of our employees rely on public transportation, and that has been a challenge," Ten Eyck said. To make up for shortages, "people are working longer shifts and more frequently."

Dan Lewis, president of Odenton Ace Hardware, stood in his bustling Anne Arundel County store Monday morning and ticked off all the supplies that customers had cleaned him out of over the weekend: flashlights, batteries, generators, tarps, lamp oil, kerosene and battery-operated sump pumps.

He was trying to get resupplied, but items were coming in at a trickle, not a flood. He hoped — fingers crossed — to be fully restocked by Thursday.

"It's typical for a big storm," he said. "People wait almost … till the last minute; then they're in panic mode."

Baltimore Sun reporter Eileen Ambrose contributed to this article.



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