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Even without snow, storm slams the region

By: Jason Laughlin

PHILADELPHIA (Inquirer) – From airports and hair salons to hotels and bars, the talk Tuesday was about the no-show snow.

“Cancellations, people not coming in, and people whose kids are home from school, for what?” said Natalie Norton, co-owner of Salon A in Bryn Mawr. “Snow flurries.”

By the time it became clear that Monday night’s expected blizzard was a bust, the damage had been done. Just the specter of a storm was enough to scuttle plans, paralyze businesses, and send swaths of the local economy into a sharp, one-day lockdown.

The cost to the Philadelphia region in lost revenue and productivity fell between $50 million and $100 million, estimated Evan Gold, a vice president at Planalytics, a Berwyn company specializing in calculating weather’s economic impact.

“Even though Philly didn’t have a lot of snow, a lot of schools were closed, a lot of people stayed home from work,” Gold said. “There’s certain stuff you just don’t make up.”

The cost of the storm – which did paralyze much of New England – to the Northeastern United States, home to about 50 million people, was estimated at $500 million, he said.

Meteorologists apologized for their forecast failures, but that was not enough to satisfy some.

At Norton’s hair salon, only six customers of 40 with appointments came in for cuts and colorings Tuesday, she said.

“The last three snowfalls have been blown so far out of proportion,” Norton said.

Geri Magee, manager at Great American Pub in Conshohocken, experienced similar frustration. She had planned to host two happy hours, a going-away party, and a delayed holiday party Monday and Tuesday. All were canceled, costing her an estimated $7,000, she said.

“The hype was a bit much,” she said. “It did hurt our business.”

Heather Rosenberry, 32, of Chambersburg, Pa., drove three hours to McCaffery’s supermarket in Newtown on Tuesday morning to set up a demonstration for a yogurt company. She found herself without her product. Travel bans imposed in advance of the storm prevented the yogurt from arriving, she said.

As a result, Rosenberry had to figure out another way to spend her day.

“It’s a little inconvenient,” she said, shrugging.

Experts agreed that small businesses take the largest hits in weather events, but victims of the storm that wasn’t were legion.

Governments spent money for salt and overtime that might be needed later in the season for more substantial storms, said David Fiorenza, a Villanova University professor and expert in public-sector economics. Hourly workers lost out on income at businesses that closed or lost customers. Hotels saw a flurry of cancellations.

Hard-hit was the Courtyard Philadelphia Airport, a 152-room hotel. General manager Steven Strunk said the hotel lost $13,000 when a group of 25 canceled rooms and a meeting room.

“Usually the whole airport market thrives on negative weather and the impact weather has in travel,” he said.

What airport hotels lose in pre-storm cancellations, they typically more than make up with passengers whose flights were canceled. They can sometimes sell those rooms at a higher rate.

“We all bundle up, go into work, expecting to have a great evening with high occupancy,” Strunk said.

Not this week. The early hype for the storm caused Philadelphia International Airport to shut down before he could gain business from stranded passengers.

As of 7 a.m. Tuesday, 7,800 flights nationwide had been canceled because of the storm, at a cost to the airlines of about $10 million, according to masFlight, a software company specializing in airline operations.

Travel was interrupted for more than 400,000 passengers, and the delays are estimated to cost passengers $235 million for additional travel expenses and lost productivity, said Tulinda Larsen, an economist and masFlight’s president.

The Washington firm tracks information about more than 100,000 flights worldwide each day.

Airlines say they expect to resume regular flight operations at Philadelphia on Wednesday.

As usual, some businesses did well in the snow scare. The always-urgent quest for bread, milk, and eggs before the storm meant a banner Monday for the Wawa store on Haddonfield Road in Cherry Hill.

“It was more busy than a normal night,” said Ted Babiasz, a manager. “We thought it was going to drop off, but it was the opposite of what we thought.”

Cherry Hill Mall also reported a busy Monday.

But overall, the costs of the botched forecast exceeded the benefits, according to Fiorenza, the Villanova professor. “That doesn’t make up for what’s lost the day of the storm, when everybody stays home,” he said.

If there was anything positive about the false alarm, it was that it affected only a Monday and a Tuesday, said Gold, the Planalytics executive. Those days tend to be less busy.

Norton, who had five employees working at Salon A on Tuesday despite the lack of customers, agreed it could have been worse.

“If this was on a Saturday and they did that . . . I could never recover from the loss,” she said. “I count on those days to pay my bills.”

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