Tourism, agriculture businesses brace for Irma's impact

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"You would never know a hurricane imminent. Eerily quiet in St. Pete Beach," reports Chris O'Connell‏ of WTXF-TV. (@CoconnellFox29)

After knocking down parts of the vital tourism industry in the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma is spinning toward Florida, another vacation haven.

Tourism accounts for 1.4 million jobs in the Sunshine State, where more than 112 million people visited last year and spent $109 billion. Resorts and hotels there could suffer instant destruction from Irma's winds or lingering damage if vacationers stay away.

"We will still have our beaches after Irma, but some people who were planning to come to Florida will change those plans," said Sean Snaith, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida. "They may postpone, or change destinations."

In the Caribbean, at least 21 people were killed when Irma slammed into the islands as one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever. Heavy damage was reported on St. Martin, St. Barts and other famous beach destinations.

Roads and airports will need to be repaired or even rebuilt, and it's uncertain whether that can be done in time for the winter high season on the hardest-hit islands. Wealthier islands with more private insurance will fare better, said Gabriel Torres, an analyst for Moody's Investors Service who has studied the effect of storms in the Caribbean.

"It has an impact on tourism because some hotels will decide not to rebuild or take a long time to rebuild, and that's lost revenue," Torres said. "That can take years to recover."

Torres said St. Martin, which is divided into Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint-Martin, will benefit as their European patrons provide aid for rebuilding.

If there is any consolation, it may be that "the damage to tourism is going to be less than feared because a great many popular islands have been spared," including Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, said Arthur Frommer, the founder of Frommer's travel guides.

Here is a snapshot of Irma's likely effects on other key industries:

-- AIRLINES: More than 4,600 flights in the storm's path have been canceled, including flights this weekend in Florida, and the number is expected to soar, according to tracking service

That means more lost revenue for the airlines, which canceled about 11,000 flights when flooding from Hurricane Harvey shut down both main Houston airports for several days.

Harvey landed as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25 near Corpus Christi, Texas. It weakened to a tropical storm but lingered in Southeast Texas for days, dumping torrential rainfall in the Houston area that flooded homes and highways.

United Airlines and Southwest Airlines were hit hardest by Harvey. Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst for Raymond James, said JetBlue Airways, Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines were most vulnerable to Irma because of their higher concentration of flights that touch Florida and the Caribbean. Among the larger carriers, American Airlines has the most exposure to Irma, Syth said.

-- AUTOS: Irma won't damage as many cars and trucks as Harvey did, but the toll is still expected to be extensive, according to analysts from Cox Automotive, which publishes Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader.

Cox said 130,000 to 200,000 vehicles will be lost in Miami, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers-Naples in south Florida. By comparison, 300,000 to 500,000 vehicles were damaged in the Houston area.

In Florida, "People are driving their cars away. Look at I-95 -- they're leaving," said Brian Meredith, an insurance analyst with UBS. "Houston was different because people hadn't left."

-- INSURANCE: The industry is in good financial shape because insurers haven't had to pay out for mammoth losses like back-to-back hurricanes in over a decade, analysts say. But they are wary of Irma's predicted path, which would mean landfall in the densely populated area from Miami to Fort Lauderdale.

"This is the sort of path that could constitute the elusive 1-in-100 year event" that insurers use to judge catastrophes, Matthew Carletti, an analyst for JMP Securities, wrote in a note to clients.

RMS, a company that advises insurers, estimates Irma could cause wind damage of up to $70 billion in the U.S., almost all of it in Florida.

Meredith, the UBS analyst, said some insurers and re-insurers might need to issue debt or equity to raise more capital after getting hit with Harvey and Irma claims. Homeowner policies could become more costly but not by a great deal, he said, because premium increases require approval from regulators.

-- AGRICULTURE: Irma could be a devastating blow to a Florida citrus industry that is already reeling from a decade-long infestation of citrus greening disease, which leads to fewer and bitter-tasting fruit.

If the storm's path takes it through the center of the state -- the citrus-growing region -- it could rip oranges and grapefruit from their branches or even uproot trees, said Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

"This has the potential to be devastating," Lochridge said.

-- OIL AND GAS: One-third or more of service stations were out of gas in several Florida cities including Miami, West Palm Beach, Fort Myers and Tampa, according to GasBuddy.

Compared with Hurricane Harvey, which knocked out refineries and caused the nationwide average price of gasoline to jump about 30 cents a gallon, Irma is less likely to have such a quick and obvious effect on Americans beyond the storm's path.


Tom Krisher in Detroit and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.