Economic impact of outage unknown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Electricity began trickling back to darkened American and Canadian cities yesterday, but economic jolts from Thursday's power outage are continuing to touch people well beyond the boundaries of the blackout.

Consumers on the East Coast and beyond, undoubtedly thankful for light and water, were forced to wait for Amtrak and Wall Street to ramp back up, the U.S. mail and FedEx deliveries to return to their schedules and phone lines to clear up.

An estimated $30 million in retail sales has already been lost, and Internet usage dropped about 20 percent to 30 percent below average around the same time the lights went out Thursday.

The total impacts are not yet known, and the economic fallout may be incalculable. But energy and business professionals say the aftershocks are likely to continue past the final repairs to the power grid.

"There are things you don't expect to be related to a power outage," said Lem Singer, a spokesman for DTE Energy, which serves 2.1 million customers with nine coal-powered electric power plants in the greater Detroit area.

"We hope to be back to normal by Monday, and customers will be able to watch TV, work on their computers, flush their toilets and sit in air conditioning all at the same time."

Singer said some employees called to say driving to work might be a problem because gas stations could not pump gas. Hotels reported that guests were locked out of rooms with electronic key cards. And residents were using their gas grills to cook rapidly defrosting meat from their freezers.

American airports were all operating yesterday, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport reported normal operations. But that doesn't mean easy travel for everyone.

Amtrak service between New York and Boston was suspended through yesterday and the New York-to-Washington schedule was at just 80 percent, a spokesman said.

Trouble also traveled south.

The Borders Books off Route 175 in Columbia could not accept checks, credit cards or gift cards from about 6 p.m. Thursday to early yesterday morning.

The computer system either would not accept the electronic transactions or would take 90 seconds, or six times the standard time, to process.

"It took a while to check people out,"said Manny Albritton, a store employee.

Borders headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., was still without power yesterday. A spokeswoman did not know how many stores had been affected.

The Gap Inc. had 500 Old Navy, Gap and Banana Republic stores that lost power over the two-day period. By yesterday, more than half had regained power. But other problems prevented many from opening.

"In New York, the subways are down," said spokeswoman Debbie Eliades. "There's no way for employees to get to work. And also the mayor has asked that people don't travel into the area unless they have to, and we're respecting that."

Two of the Gap's distribution centers, one in Fishkill, N.Y., and the other in Toronto, also lost power. The New York center was operating yesterday morning, but government energy restrictions in Canada kept the Toronto location shut down. Supplies at open stores have not yet been affected.

Home Depot bypassed its normal operations to get power generators to regions that needed them.

The store shipped more than 5,000 generators Thursday night to cities without power, said company spokeswoman Goldie Taylor. The company dispatched 14 truckloads of generators to New York and 10 truckloads to Detroit, and then began replenishing generator supplies directly from the manufacturers.

"We've completely circumvented our own supply chain," Taylor said.

Workers at the assembly plant for Daimler Chrysler Corp. in Newark, Del., could not e-mail people in the Detroit offices because the computer system was down. They resorted to phone and fax, slowing things down some.

Officials there worried that if the power outages lasted through the weekend, they'd have problems getting supplies next week.

"It could start getting into parts shortages if it's down too long," said David Link, a manager for the plant.

A spokesman for FedEx said employees would work through the weekend to get packages to customers.

"The power failure did create some flight delays and limited pickups, as well as delays in customs processing in the northeast U.S. as well as the Midwest U.S," said spokesman Ed Coleman.

The U.S. Postal Service said it expects a one- or two-day delay on mail coming from and going to the Northeast. Residents in the Detroit, Cleveland and New York City metropolitan areas won't get delivery for a couple of days, said Mark Saunders, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service.

The blackouts have shut down some processing centers and post offices, and traffic is making it hard for postal carriers to get around.

"The issue is not just the power outages, but you've also got gridlock," Saunders said.

Marriott International Inc. said 175 hotels had lost power during the ordeal. Many of the full-service hotels had power generators operating a short time later, and fewer than 60 of the hotels were still affected a day later.

The hotel staff at some locations evacuated guests to the lobby and other parts of the hotel where they were given blankets and sheets to sleep on, said Dasha Ross, a Marriott spokeswoman.

The 317 rooms at New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge were already booked to capacity when the lights went out. The hotel took in an additional 300 people and allowed them to stay where they could find a spot, Ross said.

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