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Hurricane Sandy's Economic Impact Likely To Be Immense

Waves crash over a road as Hurricane Sandy comes up the coast Monday in Winthrop, Mass. Economists are predicting the storm will cost tens of billions of dollars.
Darren McCollester
Waves crash over a road as Hurricane Sandy comes up the coast Monday in Winthrop, Mass. Economists are predicting the storm will cost tens of billions of dollars.
Economic Impact of Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy's Economic Impact Likely To Be Immense
GUESTSMarney Cox, chief economist, San Diego Association of Governments. Gina Jacobs, spokesperson, San Diego Gas & Electric. Andy McKellar, director of disaster services, American Red Cross of San Diego / Imperial Counties. Richard Somerville, climate scientist and distinguished professor emeritus, Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

CAVANAUGH: The images and reports of damage from super storm sandy are starting to reveal the except of this weather catastrophe. As you just heard, at least 39 people in the U.S. dead, more than 8 million without power, the cost of recovery right now is unknowable. San Diego is of course 3,000 miles away from the storm tearing into the east coast, but that doesn't mean we're not feeling some effects from this major weather event which has closed down airport, stopped work in both Washington DC and Wall Street. We'll get updates on several aspect aspects of the storm. Richard Somerville, climate scientist and professor emeritus of the Scripps institute of oceanography. Welcome to the program. SOMERVILLE: Thank you, Maureen. Pleasure to be with you. CAVANAUGH: What was the storm like where you are, in the Washington DC area? SOMERVILLE: I think we dodged a bullet here. We had a lot of rain and heavy wind, but the hotel that I'm in didn't lose power, and compared to what happened in New York, I think Washington got off lightly. CAVANAUGH: Where is the storm now headed? SOMERVILLE: The center of Sandy is in western Pennsylvania right now, but this is a huge storm. It was 1000 miles across when it made landfall in New Jersey yesterday. It's really covering the whole northeast. The center right now is in western Pennsylvania, weakening, and drifting north. It's still bringing rain and snow at high altitudes. CAVANAUGH: The snow part was surprising to a lot of people to hear. Areas of the Atlantic midwest are going to get snow at an unusual time. SOMERVILLE: It began as a tropical hurricane, yet it merged with a middle latitude pressure system, so it's cold air coming down from Canada and, that precipitation is falling out at high altitudes. CAVANAUGH: This storm was tracked, and because of that, flights were canceled, accidents decided to close. Is it satisfying for a weather scientist that people were as prepared as they were for this huge weather event? SOMERVILLE: Yes, I think that's a very good point. This storm had a lot of advanced warning. The forecast track was very good. We knew as early as last week where this storm was going to go and that it would be very serious. So for example, New York City and Washington decided well before the storm to close schools torque shut down subways, in Washington to close the federal government, to position assets and to warn people. And that level of accuracy and that length of forecast range would not have been possible only a few decades ago. So it's a great scientific advance. It's you might say the silver lining in what is a terrible natural catastrophe. And it bodes well that the investment people have made in computers and radar and research has paid off. CAVANAUGH: A lot of people are looking it's this hurricane in context with the weather events we've seen in recent years, and is this the result of climate change? SOMERVILLE: That's a good question. And I think the right way to think about it is that sandy was the result of both natural processes and human-caused climate change or global warming. It was in some ways quite unprecedented. There have been hurricanes following similar tracks in the past, but this was a very large hurricane which left the tropics merged with a mid-latitude system of low pressure. It broke many records. It was surely affected by climate change, including global warming being partly responsible for the extra warmth in the ocean which is the energy source for hurricanes, and which produces a wetter atmosphere. There's research that will go on now as to whether the effect of reduced sea ice cover in the arctic helped to set up the wind pattern and of course the sea level is rising because of global warming, and that makes the storm surge which did so much damage in New York and elsewhere worse. I think the right way to look at this is not to ask did global warming cause this storm, because as I said, it's a combination. And the metaphor that I like to use is the baseball player who takes steroids. He was a good player beforehand, he hit home run, so you can't point to a single home run he took after getting on drugs and say that was due to the drugs. But you see the answer in the statistics. His home run slugging percentage and batting average go up. So it's something that you see only in the statistics. And we'll know more after we see more hurricanes. But global warming or man-made climate change, that it contributed to the severity of this storm is very likely. CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much for joining us. SOMERVILLE: It's been a great pleasure. Thank you, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: Marney Cox joins us now. Hi. COX: Good to be here. CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the potential local economic impact of Sandy. Airlines are not flying to a number of east coast destinations. How does that affect us here? COX: Well, I think there's a lot of connections, regardless of whether you're in San Diego or the other parts of the U.S. or the world with the area that was hit by Sandy. And it's too bad we weren't as prepared for the economic downturn that we're going through right now as we are prepared for the hurricane that hit. [ LAUGHTER ] COX: But having said that, I think the airline industry as an example. About 1,400 flights had been canceled. And it's a system where flights take off, go to a location and land. And anytime that system is compromised, this storm is hitting an area that's probably 20% of the total nation's population. So this is having severe complications in terms of people's ability to get around on the transportation system, but also the production and distribution of goods, domestic or international. So this is having major complications. CAVANAUGH: I heard there was an update recently at Kennedy in New York, it may be open I think tomorrow, but there had been some reports these airports are going to be down for a couple of days. How long would such a delay in the east coast have to last before we really started to feel it here 1234 COX: Well, the longer it goes on, the more postponing, the more people back up, and it's possible that you begin to cancel things. So the real economic loss really comes from the cancellation, the postponement means just the trip didn't take place. And then what kind of a redistribution of airline tickets and things like that would actually go on. Does the consumer have to foot the bill for the Los in the frip? CAVANAUGH: When New York's financial markets are closed, what kind of an impact does that have on us here in San Diego? COX: You might not be able to execute your trade. If you counted on that and funds to be used, that's not going to happen. It's possible that you may be able to get to a broker that's not in New York to help you carry out that transition. But other things really require New York to be open. For example, a bond transaction that is supposed to close. It's possible that the people you were with, sell those bonds to, are no longer at work. So that transaction is pushed off. Transactions pushed off to another day when you come back to market, it's different than it was before. CAVANAUGH: Now, we have had major weather events close down certain sections of the country before, so we're not trying to make it a bigger deal than it is, but everything is so interconnected now. What do you foresee as the impact of a complete shutting down of the major economic center of this nation on businesses here? COX: What we try to do is learn from each of these catastrophes that go on. And I think the range of impact here, they believe this will is greater than Irene, that happened a year ago at about a $10 billion estimate, but they don't think it's as severe as catrin Awhich was close to a $45 million impact. And that's just the insurance claims that were submitted, not the total disaster that occurred. This is somewhere between the $20 billion level or so. It sounds like the severity of the storm was even greater than what was instated. So maybe the models we've got set up are an underestimate of what that impact might be. Especially to public sector infrastructure. All the way from the subways that run there to the beach erosions, to the bridges, to whatever one instruction projects were underway at the time. All those things were going to have major impacts and require some repair if not complete overdos. CAVANAUGH: It's your job to assess and figure out what is going to be real impact, the problem here. We are in struggling out of an economic downturn. What do you think that this kind of catastrophe on the east coast is going to do to our recovery? COX: Well, there are some reservoirs of resources that have been set aside. FEMA is one of them, that is supposed to be able to be upon thatted into. But it sounds like maybe above what FEMA's capabilities are, especially in light of other problems that may occur, that it's supposed to be a part of. If it taps beyond that, then we have to figure out what kinds of resources need to be borrowed to put everything back in order again. And at a time when we're already in debt, no matter if you're at the state or federal level, it digs you deeper into debt than you were before. You about this is one of those things that rises to the top of the priority scale to be completed. CAVANAUGH: I'd like that go to our guest on the line right now, Gina Jacobs with San Diego gas and electric. JACOBS: Hi. CAVANAUGH: Little SDG&E is helping mobilize east coast workers to make repairs. JACOBS: It looks very large. We're working with conEdison in New York City. About 40 employees will be leaving on Friday, helping to restore power to their customers. CAVANAUGH: Now, are these resources that you're sending, these people that you're sending actually going to be doing the repairs? JACOBS: Absolutely. The employees we're sending out there are six 5-man line crews, helping to repair the overhead distribution. These are professionals with the experience and expertise that they really can chip in and help where it's really crucial. CAVANAUGH: Is SDG&E donating this relief effort? JACOBS: It's part of a mutual assistance program. So we work with other utilities. And conEdison in this case is going to be paying for the shipping of the equipment. And our staff definitely stepped up, and folks that wanted to go out there and help stepped up and volunteered to go out there, and they'll be working with conEdison. CAVANAUGH: Right now airports remain closed. I've heard that some of these areas are really hard to get into JACOBS: Yeah, the travel plans are for them to be leaving on Friday. We also have about 25 pieces of equipment that are leaving right now out of a yard in lakeside where we're loading up our trucks to meet up with our crew when is they arrive on Friday. CAVANAUGH: Thanks for talking with us. JACOBS: You're very welcome. CAVANAUGH: And on the line also is Andy Convention Center Kellar, director. Disaster services for Red Cross of San Diego, imperial counties. Hi Andy. KELLAR: How are you? CAVANAUGH: Just fine. I know some people from San Diego were in place even before sandy hit in areas of the east coast, KELLAR: Right now we've got people in New York and in New Jersey. We have some more people on deck, but as your previous caller indicated, we're waiting for the airports to open back up. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what are you doing this now? Is this largely the kind of thing where centers are open for people who have been evacuated? KELLAR: Right. We're doing what we usually you do, which is mass care. That's our main focus, shelters, feeding people, getting them access to healthcare if they need that. Mental health council figure they need that as well. CAVANAUGH: I heard that there was a need for blood donations. JACOBS: KELLAR: They did cancel upwards of 300 blood-gathering events on the east coast because of this storm. So if you want to donate blood, certainly that's always greatly accepted. We do that greatfully. And if they want to do that, that would be wonderful. CAVANAUGH: What will you and the red cross continue to do throughout the coming days as this storm goes away and loses strength? KELLAR: We're in the process of doing disaster assessment work, getting a handle on the extent of the disaster, the extent of the devastation. Right now we're seeing the same images everybody else is on TV, at least on this end. For people on the ground, they're determining the extent of the damage so we can look at what needs these folks are going to have down the line and help to service those needs. CAVANAUGH: Has there been a special super storm sandy donation line been set up for the red cross? KELLAR: If they want to donate to hurricane sandy, they can go to, and they can click on links to get them to donate for hurricane Sandy, yes.

AT&T wireless customers can make a $10 donation by texting to the following non-profit organizations:

  • REDCROSS to 90999 to support the American Red Cross

  • STORM to 80888 to help the Salvation Army

  • HUMANE to 80888 to give to the American Humane Society

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."

Corrected: September 27, 2021 at 9:24 AM PDT
KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh, Claire Caraska and Peggy Pico contributed to this story.