Then Hurricane Sandy arrived, shutting down trains, subways and thousands of flights. Millions of commuters were stranded. Port closures and power outages disrupted operations at oil refineries and nuclear reactors.
All that is testing whether even in the New York region, arguably the country’s most important and sophisticated center of commerce and finance, electronic connections alone are enough to keep the economy moving.
As far as the country has traveled toward online commerce, the economy still depends very much on physical highways, not just Internet highways, as well as century-old networks for physically moving people and goods.
Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said the shutdowns of the subway systems in Washington and New York City illustrate just how heavily both metropolitan areas rely on public transportation.
“There’s an enormous amount of lost productivity,” Dinegar said. “People are going to have to spend unproductive hours rescheduling and replanning” work that had to be canceled.
The limits of the virtual economy were on full display in Lower Manhattan, where stock exchanges considered keeping markets open through the storm via electronic trading. But regulators and some investors argued that humans were still needed for markets to work properly, noting the multitude of recent electronic glitches that have marred the trading of high-profile stocks such as Facebook.
The markets were kept closed Monday and Tuesday, the first time the weather had led to a shutdown of more than a day since 1888.
Some work tasks can be done long-distance, but many jobs and events can be carried out only in person.
One example is the annual fine-art print fair at the New York Armory, scheduled for this weekend. Dealers consider it the “Super Bowl” event of the year, attracting more than 6,000 people, said Michelle Senecal, executive director of the International Fine Print Dealers Association. The association postponed the opening by one day to allow more time for dealers — and their art — to arrive. One dealer who flew in before the storm and who was staying on Roosevelt Island joked that he might still need a rowboat to get to Manhattan.
Food distribution also relies on functioning roads. In Washington, Safeway customers might have trouble finding certain brands of yogurt and fruit juice because the storm shut down some manufacturers and distributors in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, said Safeway spokesman Greg Ten Eyck.
“We’ll be affected by that for a few days,” he said.
Early estimates of the damage caused by Sandy range as high as $88 billion. If past major storms are a guide, look for industrial production to take a dip in October as factories from the Carolinas to New England suspend activity and for housing starts to slow as builders postpone new construction.