Storm is business boon for some, bust for others -- Gazette.Net


Throughout Maryland, businesses of all stripes were affected by Friday night’s devastating thunderstorms that left millions without electricity. For some, the double whammy of widespread power outages combined with daytime temperatures near 100 degrees has been a boon; for others, a bust.

For all, it’s been a challenge.

“It’s like the summertime version of Snowmaggedon,” said Steve Butler, manager of Strosniders hardware store in Potomac, referring to the record-breaking snowstorms of February 2010. “We’re trying to get as much product as possible, and tensions are getting high.”

He said that while Strosniders’ partnerships with its suppliers allows its stores to react quickly in crises such as this, this storm came “so fast and so quick.” It took Strosniders’ three Maryland stores a day to get restocked, Butler said, with delivery trucks arriving at all hours of the day.

“I think we’ve done pretty darn good,” he said.

Grocers work to stay stocked

Grocers faced a particular challenge keeping merchandise on their shelves and maintaining supplies of food fresh.

“We’re trying to work around the clock to keep stores well-stocked,” said Jamie Miller, spokesman for Giant Food in Landover. “We’re without electricity at the headquarters, but we’re operating on generator power. We have our entire support staff here to ensure stores are getting product. It’s all hands on deck.”

Giant’s 173 stores were all operating Monday, with electricity either from the grid or their own generators, Miller said. Demand for key products such as ice and bottled water remained high, but Giant was continuoually stocking up, he said.

“There’s some limits on the perishable items in the stores without power, but we’re running at normal hours,” said Michael Siemienas, spokesman for SuperValu, parent of Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, whose headquarters are in Lanham. Shoppers has 39 stores in Maryland.

He added that Shoppers has an advantage over some other regional grocers in that SuperValu also supplies its grocers, so there was less concern about supplier problems.

Two of Maryland’s 66 Safeway stores were closed as of Monday afternoon, with six stores expecting to receive extra ice deliveries, according to a news release from the company, which has its eastern headquarters in Lanham.

Spokeswoman Jo Natalie said all of Wegmans' five Maryland stores have been "extremely busy," although that by Monday, fewer customers were purchasing prepared food and avoiding perishables than during the weekend. Wegmans in Glenarden's Woodmore Towne Centre also lost electricity Friday night and use generator power until Saturday, she said.

"We're making whatever adjustments we need to make," Natalie said, as the Rochester, N.Y., chain’s stores already were well-staffed because of the Fourth of July weekend.

Without electricity, the Whole Foods Market store on River Road in Bethesda shut down for the weekend, said spokeswoman Graceila Lopez. And that meant throwing away all the store's produce, and refrigerated and frozen items, though she said she couldn't estimate the dollar loss.

By Monday morning, electricity was restored and the store reopened, but with "just a few items in now," Lopez said that afternoon.

While most grocers concentrated on keeping products in stock, others managed to find ways of helping out those affected by the storm.

Harris Teeter stores were distributing free ice in Olney and Bethesda and using tractor-trailer trucks to haul ice to help communities in Bethesda and Columbia, according to the company's website.

‘Like working for Pepco’

Companies that make a living off helping people in emergencies also weathered the storm’s aftermath in their own way.

Griffith Energy, a New York fuel supplier with offices in Maryland, made fuel deliveries to various Pepco service vehicles, as they sought to bring customers back online, said Peter Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association. He said many of his members were focusing on fueling generators at hospitals and schools.

"It was the same as any other emergency situation," Horrigan said, adding that some gas stations ran out of electricity needed to run their pumps, while others ran out of a particular type of fuel.

Service companies such as Moon Air in Elkton experienced “quite the adventure trying to prioritize,” said owner Steve Moon. He said his 14 employees worked overtime through the weekend and expected to work through the Independence Day holiday, fielding calls from the elderly and those with medical conditions.

“It’s hot and it had to happen on a holiday weekend,” Moon said. “I think we’ve been doing well with it, despite everything.”

His biggest concern was the potential for insurance fraud, with people blaming the storm for their systems failing, he said.

“It’s crazy; it’s like working for Pepco,” said Kathy McDermott, an office manager at Ed’s Tree Service in Beltsville. McDarmott returned early from her Florida vacation to help manage calls for the 15-employee business, she said.

“There’s a lot of trees on houses, trees in houses, and it’s widespread,” she said. “We work until we’re done with the day.”

Several businesses throughout the region said they were too busy to take reporter calls.

For Trummel Electric in Rockville, the real influx of service calls awaits, as Pepco moves into neighborhoods and informs people of damages, said co-owner Rick Trummel.

“We expect to be swamped,” he said, adding that his office also is without air conditioning.

Roof Pro of Severn was prepared for the storm, said Chris Kline, office administrator, emphasizing that the business had extra salespeople on hand and many have been pulling evening and Saturday shifts.

“We want to get service to people as fast as we can and refer them to others if they’re out of our region,” Kline said. Roof Prop serves most of the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan area.

Shattering experience

Falling trees mean lots of broken windows, and Charlotte Streidel, owner of the Glass Doctor franchise store in Rockville, said Friday night's storm will keep her and her eight employees busy for at least two weeks.

"I brought in everyone I could on Saturday," Streidel said Monday. "It's good for business, but you have to temper that enthusiasm with knowing that the client doesn't necessarily think it's great."

Roughly 70 percent of her shop's business is residential, including automotive glass, with the rest commercial.

"It's been interesting: We generally do a lot of windshields, and then side glass calls on the weekends, from break-ins," she said. "But on Saturday, we had lots of back glass calls from fallen tree branches."

Almost all her calls have been from older neighborhoods with more mature — and vulnerable — trees in Kensington, Potomac, Rockville and Alexandria, Va., she said.

"We're servicing emergencies right away," but postponing other jobs, when the customer has been able to at least board up the damage, until next week, Streidel said.

Worst storm in memory?

Hardly, said Streidel, who's worked at the glass store for 12 years, three as franchise owner.

"Every year, we get a storm of some sort," she said, recalling intense thunderstorms in May 2010 that felled many trees in the county.

"That storm hurt my business," Streidel said. "We had no power then. We have power now."

Calls up for insurance agents

Insurance agencies also were taking more calls than usual.

“Winds are going to blow and people are going to have questions,” said John Scalley, principal agent for a Nationwide Insurance agency in Hanover. “We get a call about a tree falling on someone’s camper. That’s what we’re here for.”

Employee resources are being moved around to best accommodate clients, said David W. Kushner, provincial agent for another Nationwide agency in Mount Rainier. He said the increase in call volume has been gradual, but he anticipates more as people get their power restored and can call.

Major employers fared well

For some of the region’s major employers, the storm’s impact was minimal.

One of research corporation Westat’s eight buildings lost electricity Friday but was back online by early Saturday, said Bruce Romer, vice president for adminstration.

“We’re always concerned about employee welfare and are trying to be of assistance and help wherever we can,” he said, adding that Westat remained well-staffed Monday.

Westat has 2,000 employees at its Rockville campus.

“We’re one of the lucky ones,” spokesman Frank Strong said of 600-employee Vocus in Beltsville. He said none of the social marketing company’s control centers experienced any problems from the storm and the parking lot was full Monday.

He joked that Vocus’ working air conditioning and gym showers also might have been an incentive for workers.

Hotels bookedAt the Crowne Plaza Rockville and nearby Rockville Sleep Inn, bookings on Saturday and Sunday were up about 50 percent from what general manager Earl Raven expected. The hotels were full those nights and had to turn many people away, he said.

Bookings also were up Monday, with a big chunk of the reservations for out-of-town utility crews called in to help restore power, he said.

“They are staying on a day-by-day basis based upon how much progress they make,” Raven said.

The hotels did not lose power themselves on Friday night and have backup generators in case of an outage, he said. “We were very fortunate,” Raven said.

Some hotels in the region already had many weekend bookings because of the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, which wrapped up Sunday.

Bethesda hotels were either packed or made do without electricity.

The Bethesda Court Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue, which didn’t lose electricity, has been sold out since the storm, said Jenny Carrana, who works at the front desk.

And Marriott’s Residence Inn in downtown Bethesda was full.

But the Bethesda Marriott on Pooks Hill Road lost power and didn’t regain it until Monday morning, said Carlos Correa, a front desk agent. Half of its approximately 200 rooms were booked, as staff worked to keep residents comfortable by moving them to rooms on lower floors.

The situation in Bethesda was getting back to normal Monday, said Ginanne Italiano, executive director of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce. On Sunday night, many Bethesda businesses were open and restaurants were packed, she said.

Meanwhile, the three air-conditioned floors of the Barnes & Noble bookstore in downtown Bethesda resembled a literary refugee camp Saturday afternoon. People seeking a break from the heat filled every seat and many just sat on the floor, with dozens camped out by every available electric outlet to charge their phones, laptops and computer tablets.

Likewise, the Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda was packed with shoppers and people in search of working outlets.

“It just blew me away,” Italiano said. “You just saw so many people sitting on the floor up and down [the mall].”

The Movies at Montgomery Mall was busier than usual, even though its credit card machines were down, said Jon Goldstein, co-owner.

“We’re just happy that we were able to help people out, let them escape for a few hours,” he said.

People also sought refuge at Rock Bottom in downtown Bethesda. The restaurant and brewery has not lost electricity in 11 years, said manager Rob Cousins. Staff set up a charging station so that patrons could charge electronic devices.

State program postponed due to outages

The state’s biotech investment tax credit program was scheduled to start taking online registration from investors on Monday. But the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development decided to postpone that a week until 9 a.m. next Monday due to continued power outages and the state of emergency.

“A decision has been made to reschedule the online registration for the biotechnology investment incentive tax credits so that investors who have already applied and been accepted have an opportunity to participate,” agency Secretary Christian S. Johansson said in a statement.

The program has $8 million in credits available in fiscal 2013. Registrations will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis next Monday.

Staff Writer Robert Rand contributed to this report.,