- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2011

For a region that has been rocked by an earthquake and slammed by a tropical storm in the space of less than a week, Mother Nature may be providing a silver lining in the form of a business stimulus package.

At Gaithersburg-based High’s Chimney Service, manager Laura Chanthalath said business is up 75 percent this week. She said the company is rebuilding four to five chimneys a day from quake and storm damage, compared with the usual one chimney at this time of the year.

“We’re completely booked,” Ms. Chanthalath said. “This has been a big boost in our business because the summer is extremely slow, especially in the chimney business. So it’s been good for us but bad for the homeowners.”

Business leaders contend that natural disasters can push a depressed economy forward by encouraging companies to dip into their savings and spend on rebuilding efforts. Also, relief supplies such as food, clothes and construction materials tend to be purchased from stores near disaster zones.

Estimates put the immediate economic costs of Irene at $20 billion, not counting the lost production and work hours as businesses struggle to reopen in the hardest-hit areas. Some of the losses can never be recovered — a lost late-summer weekend for businesses in Ocean City, Md. — but economists say much of the rebuilding of roads, bridges and buildings, along with retail purchases that can be deferred, will recoup virtually all of the losses in the coming years.

With relief workers coming into the region, along with families displaced from their homes, hotels and restaurants get an immediate boost.

“I don’t think that any local business owner would say that they are grateful for their community having to suffer through a disaster,” said Kitty Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Business Civic Leadership Center, which heads the disaster response for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “They will give away goods, they will feed people for free, they will open up the parking lots for Red Cross. I don’t think they consider this an economic opportunity for themselves.”

But even in communities decimated by natural disasters, there is a sense of trying to move past a bad situation.

“We have opportunity in front of us,” said Kirstie Smith of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce. The Missouri community was devastated by a May tornado estimated to have caused $3 billion in damage. “You’ve got to look to the future, because what’s in front of you out your door is a little overwhelming some days. It’s what you have to do.”

One-two punch

Hurricane Irene passed over much of the Eastern Seaboard during the weekend, shortly after last week’s 5.8-magnitude earthquake — the region’s largest in more than a century. It was a double whammy that has given a boost to some local businesses, such as contractors and construction lenders as homeowners and businesses rebuild, and overtime pay and new hires at utility companies that are working to restore power.

Analysts predict that the widespread damage will have a modest net impact on an economy with an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent and a construction industry struggling to recover from the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

“It may take a little bit out of third-quarter [gross domestic product],” Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pa., told Reuters news agency. He predicted no more than a tenth of a percentage point increase.

“But given the cleanup and rebuilding, we will get that back in the fourth quarter and a little bit, particularly as insurance and federal money flow into the affected areas.”

Businesses such as High’s Chimney say they are happy for the renewed demand but do not want to be portrayed as exploiting the loss and desperation of those hurt by disaster.

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