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Economists will need many days — maybe weeks or months — to assess the financial harm being done by Hurricane Sandy. But whatever the final figure, it will be huge, well into the tens of billions of dollars.
More than 60 million Americans are feeling the impact of the weather monster slamming New York, New Jersey, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and many other states. The howling mix of wind, rain and snow is causing massive direct losses, i.e., the destruction of private homes, stores, boats and cars.
But there will be much more to the final bill once economists add up the lost wages, lost restaurant sales and lost tax revenues, as well as the canceled flights and cruises. Federal, state and local government coffers will be diminished by the cost of rebuilding public infrastructure, such as beaches, roads, bridges and transit systems.
And then there's Wall Street. The stock market was shut down on Monday and will remain closed again on Tuesday. Calculating the costs of two frozen trading days will be tricky.
And the weather calamity is still far from over.
"The effects of the storm could be felt well after the last cloud passes, as power outages and structural damage take days or weeks to repair," John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in a written assessment.
For a sense of just how big the cost may be, consider that early estimates of direct damage caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011 were around $7 billion. But when the final count was in, economists put the damage cost estimate at two to three times that figure.
"It seems likely that Sandy will impose greater destruction of property (than Irene), and add to that the loss of about two days commercial activity, spread over a week across 25 percent of the economy, an initial estimate of the economic losses imposed by Sandy is about $35 to 45 billion," Peter Morici, economist and professor at the University of Maryland, said in a written assessment.
Other economists have been putting out estimates that reach as high as $100 billion.
But while the storm will have a huge negative economic impact, it also may have some short-term upsides, especially for retail outlets such as hardware and grocery stores. Customers rushed to stock up on emergency supplies in the days before the storm hit, and many will have to replace spoiled food in the wake of power outages.
"People have been buying just what you would expect: bottled water, toilet paper, ice, batteries, flashlights and of course, beer and wine, candy, chips and dips," said Kevin Kirsch, co-owner of the Chevy Chase Supermarket in a Maryland suburb just north of Washington, D.C.
But Kirsch said that for many small-business owners, major storms are a double-edged sword. "Generally, I'd prefer not to have storms," he said. "For the bump up you get in business, if your power goes out, you come out way negative" because of lost sales, as well as wasted inventory when spoiled meats and dairy products must be thrown away.
Morici points out that whatever the immediate negative impacts of bad storms, they can have some long-term positive effects. Given that lots of construction workers are still unemployed in this slow-growing economy, the rebuilding efforts could unleash up to $20 billion in spending for reconstructing properties, he said.
"Many folks rebuild larger than before," Morici noted. As a result, "the capital stock that emerges will prove more economically useful and productive."
For example, "on the shore, older smaller homes on large plots are replaced by larger dwellings that can accommodate more families during the summer tourist season," he said. "The outer banks of North Carolina saw such gains several decades ago after rebuilding from a storm of similar scale."
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