Kelly Donoway's loss--a refrigerator full of food--was her grocery store's gain yesterday. When her electricity was restored after four days without power, the Anne Arundel County woman found herself on an epic journey through the aisles of Giant, husband and young daughter in tow, racking up $206.86 in purchases.
"We didn't even buy a lot of real food," she said, showing a receipt for such items as relish, pickles, mayonnaise and Popsicles, as well as milk and eggs. "It's like moving into a new house."
To the delight of many businesses--from contractors to movie theaters--Hurricane Floyd is sending ripples through the local economy as Washington area residents open their pocketbooks to rebuild, restock, clean up or just plain cope with the tropical storm's aftermath.
It's a phenomenon often seen in the days after a catastrophic storm. "There's a real spike in consumer spending," said Douglas Woodward, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina who studied the fiscal effect of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 on the southeastern coast of the United States.
But while the market may be tickled for weeks or months at a time, the effect is short-lived, experts say. In the long run, a natural disaster inevitably hurts a local economy. And even in the short term, some businesses find they can't fully capitalize on the storm-boosted market demands because of the manpower shortages created by an already healthy economy.
Throughout the region, residents continued to struggle with the aftereffects of Floyd. About 52,300 customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. remained without power yesterday evening, including 15,000 in Anne Arundel County and slightly more than 3,000 apiece in Prince George's and Howard counties.
In southeastern Virginia, where downtown Franklin remained covered with about 10 feet of water and nearly 8,000 homes in the larger area have been damaged by flooding, officials fretted over predictions of two to four inches of rain overnight.
Locally, much of the surge in consumer spending was triggered by the widespread and lingering power outages.
In Annapolis, one of the areas hardest hit by power outages, the local Home Depot was mobbed by customers in search of portable generators. When a pallet of them arrived Friday, "it was like refugees in a Third World country when the rice truck arrives," said Steve Paskal, an attorney shopping there that afternoon. "They swooped down on it."
Hardware stores were likewise ringing up huge sales to customers in search of battery-powered lights and oil lamps, or rakes and chain saws to clear debris from their yards.
Power outages also triggered a run on restaurants, hotels and movie theaters throughout the area.
"We got slammed," said Lea Sewell, manager of Chevy's Fresh Mex Restaurant in Greenbelt, recalling the hours after the storm had passed Thursday evening. "The bar was the busiest. People drink on days like that."
In Bowie, Hoyt's Cinema 14 was unusually busy over the weekend, but especially the day of the storm, when schools and many workplaces had closed. "Basically, the whole city of Bowie didn't have power and we did, so everyone was coming to the movies," said manager Erik Lee.
But the storm didn't do much for the theater's bottom line. Understaffed and unprepared for such large crowds on a weekday, the concession stand couldn't keep up with the demand and lost out on potential popcorn and candy sales.
In Virginia, motels on the outskirts of Franklin are packed, an unusual pace of business for this time of year.
Yet other hotels, particularly in the Washington area, found that the influx of local families simply made up for the lost business from tourists who canceled planned visits because of the weather.
So it goes with natural disasters, a pattern of gains and losses that starts in the first days after a storm but continues on a larger scale for months. The construction and contracting industries tend to be the big winners, economists say.
"Once the insurance claims start coming in, people go on a binge," said Woodward. "After this immediate loss of wealth, there's this rebuilding that takes place much more quickly than you'd think." Hurricane Hugo, he said, delayed the start of the early 1990s recession for South Carolina.
In many storm-damaged neighborhoods, valuations actually rise, in a phenomenon that Woodward calls "the Jacuzzi effect": "People take the insurance money and they not only replace what they have, but they put in all kinds of amenities."
But Woodward and others note that the net effect of a natural disaster is always negative. After an initial surge, spending levels drop below average.
"I might rebuild my house but even if I have insurance, I have likely dipped into my savings so that I'm poorer," said Michael L. Walden, a professor of economics at North Carolina State University. "I might not take that trip later. I might not put that addition on my house."
Some contractors find that at a time when the booming economy already has them busily employed, they haven't been able to take advantage of the storm.
By late last week, Fairfax-based C&D Tree Service was getting about 60 calls a day--about 10 times the usual number--from people needing fallen trees removed from their yards. But the company was busy enough fulfilling its contracts with the District government and several military installations.
"We worked from dawn until dusk," said owner Scott Nelson. Although the contracts promise C&D a slightly higher rate for storm work, there wasn't much of a windfall after paying his crews overtime.
Yet for businesses that have been able to keep their doors open and their lights on, the gains have been impressive. At a Giant Food store outside Annapolis, Assistant Manager Richard Galloway said people were pouring in just 15 minutes after the rain stopped. Even if they hadn't lost power, something about the brush with disaster seemed to inspire a shopping frenzy, he said.
"I wouldn't go out after the storm. There are power lines down and trees falling," said a puzzled Galloway. "But they came to Giant and shopped, which is great for us."
Staff writers Daniel LeDuc, R.H. Melton, Craig Timberg and Josh White contributed to this report.