The four hurricanes that recently struck the southeastern United States left a lingering imprint on the national economy by pushing up oil prices, wiping out jobs and disrupting shipments of fruits and vegetables to grocery stores.
While residents of Florida and several other states are still coping with the most visible signs of destruction from the hurricanes that hit in August and September -- flattened houses and businesses -- the economic damage is still rippling across the country.
Persistent production problems caused by the hurricanes helped drive oil prices further into record territory yesterday, passing the $51 a barrel level.
Giant Food, the Washington region's biggest grocery chain, has blamed the hurricanes for higher prices on a variety of produce.
In the past week, the chain has raised the price of green squash from $1.49 to $1.99, eggplant from $1.29 to $1.79 and green beans from $1.69 to $1.99, said Barry F. Scher, a Giant spokesman.
Signs posted inside the produce section of Giant's 200 Washington area stores say that the hurricanes have resulted in "less quantities and higher cost for limited product."
Safeway Inc., which has about 140 stores in the region, has not experienced produce shortages and has not raised prices, but spokesman Greg TenEyck said both are "inevitable."
Production of oil in the Gulf of Mexico remains severely impaired because of damage from last month's Hurricane Ivan, and repairs are taking longer than expected.
U.S. benchmark crude for November delivery closed yesterday at a record $51.09 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. As oil prices rise, gasoline and diesel fuel prices continue to increase. Nationally, the average price of regular gasoline climbed to more than $1.93 a gallon yesterday, according to the AAA auto club. Diesel rose to a record of more than $2.07 a gallon.
The four hurricanes, which struck over six weeks, have wiped out thousands of jobs and billions of dollars worth of property, economists estimate. The hurricanes caused parts of 10 eastern states from Florida to Vermont to be declared federal disaster areas.
The storms destroyed or seriously damaged many hotels, restaurants, stores, factories and other businesses, while temporarily closing seaports, harbors, theme parks and other tourist destinations.
Insurance payments from the four storms combined will total as much as $23 billion, far surpassing the previous record set by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, according to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group.
Through Sept. 10, nearly 13,000 workers in Florida alone had filed new claims for unemployment benefits because of job losses related to Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan, according to an analysis of the data by Ray Stone of Stone & McCarthy Research Associates in Princeton, N.J.
Meanwhile, the destruction has boosted demand for roofers, carpenters and other workers in the construction trades, and likely will continue to do so for months.
After combining the employment losses and gains, the hurricanes probably eliminated 15,000 jobs nationally, Stone estimated.
But the reconstruction work will probably add more jobs by the end of the year than were lost in September and October, he estimated.
Likewise, despite the severe suffering experienced by individual families, communities and businesses, the reconstruction efforts will likely boost the nation's economy slightly overall, over time, said Sung Won Sohn, chief economic officer of Wells Fargo Economics in Minneapolis. That was the experience following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, he said.
Sohn noted, for example, that a window maker in Minnesota has seen a surge in orders from Florida in the wake of the storms. "It's a net stimulus for economic growth," he said.
The hurricanes have depressed daily oil production in the Gulf by about 453,000 barrels, or more than 26 percent, according to federal officials. Natural gas production also is down.
"There was a lot more damage done than most people were expecting," said Marshall Steeves, an analyst at Refco LLC in New York. "It's really uncertain how long it will continue."
World demand has pushed supplies close to their limit. When there are supply disruptions -- or threats to disrupt supplies -- prices go up. In addition to hurricane-related disruptions, traders are worried about threats of unrest in Nigeria and continuing attacks on oil targets in Iraq and elsewhere.
In the Gulf, repairs to damaged oil platforms and pipelines continued.
Hugh Depland, a Houston-based spokesman for BP, said that his company normally produces the equivalent of 350,000 barrels a day of oil and gas in the region but that production is now at about 150,000 barrels a day.
"This is probably a more serious impact than we've had from any storm that we've seen certainly in my recent memory," Depland said.
He said repairs to BP facilities are close to complete -- flooring, railing and electronics were damaged on offshore rigs -- but some pipeline operators have not finished testing needed before oil and gas can be transported through the lines. "We have at the moment an inability to produce more than we're producing because of pipeline availability," Depland said.
Staff writer Michael Barbaro contributed to this report.