The wind blew, the rain poured, but Hurricane Rita appears to have spared the nation the crippling economic blow that was once feared.
Damage assessments on the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast remain preliminary, but most of the oil refineries, chemical plants and major ports of the oil patch appear to have suffered little damage, company officials and industry associations said yesterday. Estimates of insured losses, which had been as high as $18 billion on Friday, were reassessed to as low as $2.5 billion. And energy analysts say the impact on gasoline prices over the coming weeks should be minimal.
"For the macroeconomy, this is much more a bump in the road than anything significant," said James D. Feyrer, a Dartmouth College economist.
Even the feared impact of a direct hit on the Texas oil patch will have an effect. Refineries that produce nearly a quarter of U.S. gasoline, jet fuel and other oil products were shut down in anticipation of the storm. Some of the largest chemical plants in the world were also shuttered. The Houston Ship Channel, part of the world's largest petroleum port, is still closed, as are the ports of Freeport and Port Arthur, Tex.
About 1.1 million utility customers, from Texas to Arkansas, were without electricity yesterday afternoon after Rita and Katrina's successive strikes, the Energy Department said. At least four refineries reported damages, some minor. Even plants and facilities that escaped unharmed will take days to come back to full speed, possibly leading to some supply disruptions, said Brian A. Bethune of the Massachusetts economic firm Global Insight Inc. That could slow economic growth a touch in the final months of this year.
It could also lead to some re-examination of economic and energy policies. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush has called for the creation of a vast Gulf Opportunity Zone, where business investments along the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts would receive special tax treatment. But a senior aide on the Senate Finance Committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, questioned whether the refineries and chemical companies should be encouraged to rebuild in a hurricane-prone area rather than disperse.
"When something comes through like this, it inevitably has an impact. It needs looking at," said Chris Huntley, a spokesman for Dow Chemical Co., which shut down seven plants, including its massive Freeport, Tex., facility, to prepare for Rita.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has proposed legislation to encourage the construction of new refineries, some outside the gulf region. Most refineries clustered around Houston reported that preliminary assessments showed no major problems, said Ben Sebree, vice president for governmental affairs at the Texas Oil and Gas Association. That region is home to about 13 percent of the nation's refining capacity. "The heart of the refining industry was missed," Sebree said.
The most serious damage appeared to be at a Valero Energy Corp. refinery in Port Arthur. The company said part of the refinery suffered "significant" damage and would likely require two weeks to a month to resume operations. Shell Oil Co. reported wind damage at its Motiva Enterprises LLC refinery in Port Arthur, a joint venture with a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., Aramco. Marathon Petroleum Co. reported "minimal" damage to its Texas City refinery.
Farther east, in Lake Charles, La., Citgo Petroleum Corp. reported minor damage to its refinery. The status of the two other refineries there was unclear. Lake Charles refineries represent 3.5 percent of the nation's refining capacity of 17.1 million barrels of oil a day.
Colonial Pipeline Co., which operates one of two pipelines that carry gasoline to the Washington area from the gulf region, was arranging for generators in areas of its operations where power had been cut. The company said oil products continued to flow through portions of the pipeline east of where Rita struck.
Gasoline supplies already were tight. About 5 percent of refining capacity remains idled by Katrina. Industry analysts said the temporary refinery shutdowns -- and limited damage -- mean that gasoline prices at the pump should only increase slightly. If the preliminary damage assessments hold, pump prices nationally should remain below $3 a gallon nationally, said Michael Burdette, an analyst with the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.
Oil companies yesterday had not immediately assessed damage to offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico that produce oil and natural gas, a process that will take some time, industry representatives said. U.S. officials are particularly concerned about a loss of natural gas supplies, which cannot easily be made up in imports.
Those uncertainties have a few economists concerned. Looking at the cumulative impact of what he called "Ritrina," David R. Kotok of Cumberland Advisors Inc. in New Jersey said yesterday that economic growth in the last three months of this year and the first three months of 2006 will be under 2 percent. Household natural gas and heating oil bills will soar this winter. Overall personal energy bills have already risen from 4 percent of disposable income to more than 6 percent, an unprecedented increase in speed and magnitude.
That will dampen consumer spending well into next year, Kotok told clients of his economic firm, concluding, "We may be flirting with a recession."
Staff writers Krissah Williams and Arshad Mohammed contributed to this report.