By and  on August 27, 2008

Florida retailers escaped major damage from Tropical Storm Fay, calling it more of a nuisance and disruption than a disaster.

Though it never reached hurricane status, Fay, now a tropical depression, has staying power. With a record four landfalls during an eight-day period starting Aug. 17, heavy rains and winds that have been dragging on for 12 days, and have been blamed for 13 deaths and five injuries in 13 Florida counties, according to a spokesman for Florida’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. The storm also has been responsible for 25 deaths in Alabama, Georgia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

“It’s safe to say that every county in Florida was affected by Tropical Storm Fay,” he said. “Businesses have certainly been impacted, mostly by flooding and wind damage.”

President Bush on Sunday declared a major disaster in Florida that included the counties of Monroe, Brevard, Okeechobee and St. Lucie.

The Florida Retail Federation, a Tallahassee-based organization with 11,000 member companies, reported minor flooding and sporadic power outages, mostly in the state’s panhandle, resulting in some closings Aug. 20 through Saturday.

“This was not the equivalent of a major hurricane, and nothing like the flooding [of Katrina] in New Orleans,” said Rick McAllister, president and chief executive officer. “It was a more of a rain event.”

Six of Macy’s 61 Florida stores closed early or opened late on the west coast between Bradenton and Naples on Aug. 18 and 19. Then, on Aug. 20, five east coast stores — in Merritt Island, Vero Beach, Melbourne, Daytona and Jensen Beach — also opened for partial hours.

A Wal-Mart spokesman reported no significant damage or interruption to business hours in any Florida Wal-Mart store, but there were a few sporadic power outages. All stores are up and running now.

“The main impact on Wal-Mart was an increase in business as people sought out preparation materials before the storm,” he said.

Jacksonville-based Stein Mart, with 49 Florida units out of 283 total stores, had “a handful of closings on Thursday, and one on Friday, mostly in northern east coast areas. No stores had major physical damage, but one had minor water issues,” a spokeswoman said.

The pattern and duration of the storm “had an impact on all stores through the weekend, because customers were distracted by it, rather than focused on shopping,” she said, adding that business had returned to normal levels for August by Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for The Limited said the bulk of the company’s weather-related store problems occurred in the Jacksonville area and that only one store, at Regency Mall in Jacksonville, closed early due to the mandatory mall closing.

“Our district manager already had an action plan in place, so we were able to handle the storm well,” said the spokeswoman. “We kept constant communication with the stores and we always release pre-storm communication during hurricane season.”

Tallahassee Mall, owned by Feldman Mall Properties, lost power in one wing around noon on Saturday and the mall was closed at 2 p.m., said Steve Darby, general manager. Normal business hours resumed the next day.

“Everything shut down except the movie theaters and Belk. Yes, it affected business negatively, but I think we’ll be OK for Labor Day,” said Darby. He reported roof leaks and small trees falling, but said overall physical damage was minimal.

Three Simon Property malls in the Jacksonville area — The Avenues, Orange Park Mall and St. Johns Town Center — closed at 5 p.m. on Thursday, and reopened for regular hours the next day.

Chico’s closed its Fort Myers, Fla., headquarters Aug. 19, anticipating Fay’s landfall as a hurricane, but reopened Aug. 20 as the storm passed.

On Aug. 19, 14 total stores, including Chico’s, White House|Black Market and Soma Intimates brands, closed all day, and 11 had reduced hours. On Thursday, eight stores closed early; on Friday, three stores closed early, and one store closed early Saturday. All stores are up and running now.

Fast Buck Freddie’s, a department store in Key West, Fla., suffered no major physical damage, although John Muhley, general manager, closed Aug. 18 and said, “Everyone in Key West closed that day.” For the rest of the week, Muhley kept minimal store hours and cut employees’ shifts to four hours.

“We were able to lessen the damage that way, but because visitors are wary and are canceling hotel reservations, that’s had a major ill effect on our business. We’re hoping the tourists will still come for Labor Day,” he said, adding that he depends on Fantasy Fest, an October festival, to boost business.

Visit Florida, the tourism marketing office for the state, reported that all hotels and attractions in the state were up and running, with only minor wind and water damage reported, mostly in the Jacksonville area.

But there’s another storm brewing. “We are keeping a very close eye on Gustav,” said the spokesman for the Florida Emergency Management center. “The prognosis at the moment is that he’ll be in the Gulf of Mexico by Labor Day as a category three hurricane, but will hit the other side of the Keys — the Gulf side.”

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