As the 120-mile-per-hour winds of Hurricane Matthew buffeted the Florida coast today, residents, retailers and ports were all hunkered down and waiting for the storm to pass before accessing the fallout, which could vary widely depending on how long the region is shut down.
The storm’s wrath hit the state’s northeast coast early Friday, causing massive power outages as it moved northward, where it could impact several big cities including Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla., before surging into Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott said about 460,000 people in his state were without power, including 300,000 in the central part of the state. Most of south Florida, including Miami, escaped the hurricane, though there were tropical storm warnings as far south as Boca Raton, as well as on part of the west coast of Florida.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered 1.1 million people to evacuate Charleston and other coastal areas that could be hit by the hurricane.
Business losses due to damage and store closings could be significant, particularly in the Orlando area where there is a heavy concentration of major outlet centers, malls and entertainment complexes. Columbus Day weekend is a heavy promotional period for retailers seeking to encourage shopping for fall goods.
The Simon Property Group said five centers would be closed all day Friday, including The Avenues and St. Johns Town Center in Jacksonville, Fla; St. Augustine Premium Outlets in St. Augustine, Fla., and the Orlando International Premium Outlets and Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets in Orlando. Simon centers opening late Friday were Treasure Coast Square in Jensen Beach, Fla., which opened at 3:30 p.m., and the Florida Mall in Orlando, which was expected to open at 5 p.m.
“Twenty six Macy’s Inc. retail locations will remain closed or on delayed opening today due to inclement weather and/or evacuation requirements,” said a Macy’s spokeswoman. “Macy’s is monitoring Hurricane Matthew closely and is making location operating decisions with customer and associate safety as the number-one priority.”
At Nordstrom Inc., “Over the past few days, we’ve had seven different stores that have closed at some point and reopened. Three Rack stores remain closed today,” said a spokeswoman. “There have been no reports of damage to any stores. The safety of our employees is our top priority. We’ve been following this storm closely to assess the situation and make adjustments as necessary.”
At J.C. Penney Co. Inc., “As a precaution, 30 of our locations across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are closed today. We will continue to monitor the storm and adjust operations as necessary,” said a spokesman.
Analytics firm RetailNext, said year-over-year sales at stores in Florida rose 8.9 percent on Tuesday and 8 percent on Wednesday as people prepared for the storm. On Thursday, sales dropped 49.3 percent, at least in the precincts for which data was available.
Traffic, which has generally been down, fell 6.1 percent on Tuesday, 13 percent on Wednesday and 33.2 percent on Thursday.
“Predictably, Thursday saw empty stores and silent cash registers, something that will likely repeat on Friday,” said a RetailNext spokesman.
When people were out and about, they were mission orientated. “Shoppers weren’t browsing on Tuesday and Wednesday, they were buying,” he said.
Conversion in stores rose 0.9 percent on Tuesday and 2.1 percent on Wednesday, before falling 1.8 percent on Thursday.
But Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, said the much of the economic fallout from the storm would depend on how long of a disruption it causes.
“If it’s one day, two days, who cares,” Dhawan, noting the lost business from such a short shut down in economic activity would be quickly recouped. “If it’s 15 days, we have a problem. Then we can have an economic impact.”
A long shut down could contribute to lost economic income, while any destruction of property would also cause a short-term hit that would be recouped quickly with the rebuilding process.
“It’s only a one-day disruption so far,” Dhawan said Friday morning. “Everyone is still planning to do things on Sunday.”
The storm hits the Sunshine State at something of a vulnerable time.
“The biggest issue is for Florida, which is a tourism industry and they’re already battling the effect of the strong dollar and the [weakening] U.K. pound because of Brexit, so they’re already beginning to see some issue with the tourism,” Dhawan said.
On Friday morning, the Port of Miami remained under Port Condition Zulu, meaning all port operations were suspended. But the facility was back open for normal operations Friday afternoon after they area missed the brunt of the storm. The on-dock FEC rail service, though, remained shut down, as did some terminal operations, which were set to reopen Monday morning.
Elsewhere, Port Canaveral said it continued to experience impacts from Hurricane Matthew and officials were preparing to assess facilities and survey the harbor to determine when it is safe to re-open and resume normal business operations. The port at Jacksonville was to remain closed through Friday.
In Georgia, the Port of Brunswick terminals were closed to all work activities until Monday, and Port of Savannah terminals would remain closed to to truck traffic through at least Saturday.
Earlier, Matthew tore through Haiti leaving close to 300 people dead and massive destruction. There were also reports of four dead in the Dominican Republic, one in Colombia and one each in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The hurricane also swept through the Bahamas and Cuba.