Storm's impact likely in billions, economist says

Students from the College of Charleston head back to the college after having lunch at Kitchen 208 Thursday. Wednesday, the restaurant was open and had record crowds because other restaurants in town were closed.

The icy coating across the Southeast that paralyzed Atlanta and shut down major bridges in Charleston caused billions of dollars in lost economic activity to the region, but most of it can be recovered, economists said Thursday.

"Since there is not that much property damage, most of the loss is made up fairly quickly," said Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner of Charlotte. "Some businesses will see a loss that can't be made up, such as restaurants."

Any kind of provider of personal services that was closed, such as food service, suffered financially during the storm, College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner said.

"I'm not going to overeat today what I didn't eat yesterday," he said. "People are not going to drink the coffee they didn't drink yesterday. Those places will lose out. It's not like the gas station that's closed. I will just buy gas tomorrow."

From the Port of Charleston to major manufacturers such as Boeing, treacherous road conditions forced shutdowns for almost all businesses across the Lowcountry and brought work to a standstill.

For individual manufacturers, catching up on lost work can be a bit tougher, Vitner said.

"It depends on how much leeway they have on overtime," he said.

For businesses such as Boeing, where production already is ramped up to meet increased output levels for the 787 Dreamliner, Vitner said making up the losses can be tougher.

Boeing said it has a plan to deal with the unexpected downtime.

"We're bringing a few more employees in this weekend to make up for the lost hours," Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said. "We don't anticipate any significant impact to our schedule."

One silver lining is that the recovering economy is not at full capacity, Vitner said. Some businesses can bring in extra hands and add overtime to make up for lost work.

"By working longer hours or more efficiently, some of the losses can be recovered," he said. "For those that are (operating at full capacity), it will be tougher to recoup their losses."

At the State Ports Authority, it will open its gates on Saturday to make up for cargo stalled from closed operations from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday, said spokeswoman Erin Pabst.

Local port terminals are usually not open on Saturdays, so operations that day will allow an extra workday that was lost during the storm, she said.

Hefner, from the College of Charleston, said the economy will feel the effects of the storm.

"This is several days of lost activity," he said. "You can't make up for lost productivity. If you have an assembly operation, you can use overtime to catch up, but that costs money. There is going to be a loss of gross domestic product and gross state product because businesses aren't functioning and things aren't being done."

Some of the lost economic activity could have been offset already.

For instance, people stranded on roads in Atlanta might have boosted hotel business, Vitner said. In Charleston, where an ice storm was predicted, people with fireplaces in their homes rushed out to buy firewood ahead of the onslaught in case their power went out, paying for an item they normally might not.

"While there likely are some significant economic losses, many of those losses will be made up," Vitner said.

The bigger problem for Atlanta, he said, might be a blow to its image in the eyes of would-be manufacturers and other businesses.

"The traffic nightmare may cause some companies to look at alternatives rather than Atlanta," Vitner said.

At Charleston International Airport, canceled flights caused some monetary losses, but they were minimal, Airports Director Paul Campbell said.

"There was an economic impact over the past three days, but I don't know how to quantify it," he said. "There were some losses on vending, food service, parking and landing fees, but our goal was to have a safe operation at the airport."

The airport was closed briefly when the runways iced over, but the terminal never closed, Campbell said.

"If somebody got stuck in Charleston, they might have stayed in a hotel and ate at a restaurant, so the area probably picked up a few extra dollars that we wouldn't have had," he said.

Some places made a go of it on a day when most businesses were closed.

Kitchen 208 on lower King Street decided to open for lunch Wednesday, despite being short-staffed because of the bridge closures.

"We did it not knowing what to expect. We thought, 'We'll give it a try, maybe people will be looking for somewhere to eat lunch,' and they certainly were," said Linn Lesesne, a spokeswoman for Charming Inns. The local hospitality group oversees Kitchen 208 and hotels such as the Wentworth Mansion.

In a four-hour lunch shift, the cafe served more than 100 people. "It was slammed," Lesesne said.

Typically Lesesne handles marketing, but she and husband Rick Widman, an owner of Charming Inns, chipped in to help at the restaurant when the staff couldn't get there.

"We only had a chef and one cashier. So my husband did dishes while I took orders," she said.

"What was cool, when people came in I said, 'I got one guy cooking, one cashier, and I'm the only one taking orders.' And everyone was like, 'no big deal, everywhere else is closed,'" Lesesne added. "It was a great atmosphere because everyone understood, and they really loved the food. It was just a really successful day."

Kitchen 208 was the exception. Most restaurants remained closed, mainly because the Ravenel Bridge was shut down.

Basil, a Thai food restaurant, closed Wednesday at both locations in Mount Pleasant and downtown Charleston because its employees couldn't drive to work.

Owner Henry Eang said that while it was a lost day of business, he's not sure opening would have made a difference.

"If I had opened and no customers were here, we would have lost out then too," he said. "Based on what I've seen, I think a lot of restaurants closed because the bridge closing was a really big factor. If the bridge were open, I would have opened yesterday, no doubt about it."

Some retailers won't recoup their losses, said Susan Lucas, an owner of King Street Marketing Group.

"When businesses lose a day or two, they can't make that up, so a lot of them are really hurting because of this," Lucas said.

Staff reporters Abigail Darlington and Tyrone Richardson contributed to this report.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or