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Hurricanes' effects haven't blown over yet

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004

While Florida's economy will get the biggest jolt from the improbable string of hurricanes this year, consumers around the country may notice the effects in coming weeks and months when they buy a gallon of gas, a carton of orange juice or a bag of peanuts.

The storms seem likely to impact Americans outside Florida in a variety of ways, most of them subtle, but a few with potentially bigger consequences.

A rebuilding boom could suck construction materials and labor southward, pushing up prices in the rest of the country. While Florida's insurance market has its own disaster fund, damage elsewhere could cause companies to raise premiums. And Florida's tourism woes could further harm already teetering airlines, perhaps forcing them to pull out of even more markets.

On the other hand, vacation destinations outside Florida could benefit from skittishness about visiting the state. So could Northern states hoping to stem the flow of people and businesses who have been moving full-time to Florida.

''We've already heard anecdotal evidence of industrial recruiting in Florida, and the companies say, 'We're going to drop you off our list,''' said Mark Soskin, an economist at the University of Central Florida. ''Now you're actually hearing people talking about, 'Maybe this isn't the best place to live.' There's a lot of stress here, you can see it in people's eyes.''

For most Americans, the most visible effect of the hurricanes has been their contribution to a surge in oil prices. Florida isn't a major refining center or transportation hub for gasoline, but Hurricane Ivan shut down 39 production platforms and two drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Americans also will feel the storms' impact at the grocery store. Orange juice prices at the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain are currently no higher than a month ago, the company says, but orange juice futures are up more than one-third on commodities markets since the beginning of August, suggesting prices will rise.

Tomato prices have jumped 50 percent in recent weeks, and squash has nearly doubled, said David Bova, an owner of Produce Source Partners, a wholesaler in Roanoke, Va. The hurricanes hit just as many crops were coming out of season in the rest of the country -- a gap usually filled by Florida suppliers. The problem was compounded by hot weather in the West that shortened the growing season there.

''Chances are, high prices on these products will not really stabilize for at least 30 to 60 days,'' Bova said.

The storms also are expected to delay the harvesting of peanuts in Georgia, where the pecan crop was hard hit. The sugar harvest in Florida may be delayed, and there was extensive hurricane damage to that crop in Jamaica.

And then there's the expected rebuilding boom in Florida and along Alabama's Gulf Cost.

''Plywood, sheathing, already (demand for) a lot of that stuff was pretty stressed,'' said Soskin, the UCF economist. ''Because of low interest rates, you had a lot of homebuilding, so a lot of those things were in short supply to begin with. This is just going to throw it over the edge.''

Prices for framing lumber are 15 percent higher than a year ago, though prices for it and several other key construction supplies have fallen in recent weeks, according to industry newsletter Random Lengths.

Greg Guest, a spokesperson for Georgia-Pacific, which supplies chains like Lowe's and The Home Depot, said demand from the hurricane areas could cause some localized supply problems, but said the national picture is more balanced because the building season is coming to an end in the rest of the country.

''Supply should not be an issue because of these storms,'' he said.

Many Floridians are covered by a state insurance fund set up in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and some flood damages will be covered by the federal government, so some experts say premiums may not rise much. But others believe the storms' huge bills -- they could exceed Andrew's tab of $22 billion in current dollars -- will inevitably translate into higher premiums, even in other parts of the country.

There is a bright side, however -- it could have been worse.

Experts say the hurricanes' economic impact would have been felt far more widely if the storms had bottled up the ports of Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville -- critical gateways for South American and Caribbean trade. But those ports were quickly back up to speed after the storms, and the companies that carry the goods unloaded from ships there reported few difficulties.



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