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City Talk: Hurricane Irma’s hard hit on local workers

We already knew that Hurricane Irma impacted the local and regional economy, but the depth of the storm’s impact became clearer last week with the release of key employment data by the Georgia Department of Labor.

In September, 1,169 Savannah metro area residents filed initial claims for unemployment insurance. There were just 682 claims in September 2016.

As I have noted many times, we are in the midst of a local employment boom. If Hurricane Irma had not intervened, we probably would have seen fewer than 600 unemployment claims in September.

Yes, payroll employment in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) was still higher in September than in September 2016, but there were some striking declines from the August estimates.

The employment estimates released last week suggest that Hurricane Irma had a disproportionate impact on workers in retail trade and in leisure and hospitality.

For example, there were 21,200 retail trade jobs in September, a decline of 600 from the August estimate of 21,800. That’s a much worse drop than we saw from August to September in 2016.

In leisure and hospitality, we had 27,000 payroll positions in September, a decline of 1,500 from the August estimate of 28,500. In a typical year, we might have seen a decline of approximately 500 jobs from August to September.

These numbers are ugly enough, but Irma hurt the local employment situation in ways that aren’t captured here.

Many hourly workers saw deep cuts to their schedules both before and after the storm. Even if their shifts weren’t eliminated, many tipped employees saw dramatically reduced income for a week or more.

Irma’s impacts on employment were also significant in other areas along the Georgia coast.

In the Hinesville metro area, there were 255 initial unemployment claims in September, nearly twice as many as in September 2016.

In the Brunswick metro area, there were a staggering 2,295 initial unemployment claims in September, up from 212 in August and from 338 in September 2016.

As if the lost jobs and wages weren’t bad enough, many workers along the Georgia coast also had markedly higher expenditures in September because of the evacuation. Some evacuees moved into free shelters or found homes with friends and relatives, but many others stayed in hotels for several nights.

In recent weeks, I have talked to a number of downtown service industry employees who report that they are making less money this fall than they anticipated. Those reports are not surprising given the amount of money that many local households spent on evacuation.

Did it have to be this bad?

The lost wages, lost jobs and other employment pressures would be more understandable if the Savannah area had been hammered by a major hurricane.

Keep in mind that Gov. Deal issued the mandatory evacuation order for coastal counties on Sept. 7, but by the following day – Friday, Sept. 8 – it was increasingly clear that Hurricane Irma would make landfall in Florida and remain significantly west of us. The evacuation order was not revised until the afternoon of Sept. 9, after thousands had already evacuated.

Ironically, many evacuees travelled west into the path of the storm.

Simply put, the Savannah area economy and workers took a harder hit than was warranted by the forecast or by the actual weather conditions. I know many readers think state leaders did the best they could with the information available, but many of us were making these criticisms in real time.

By the morning of Sept. 9, many thousands of rational Savannahians had assessed the forecast and had already decided to defy the ill-considered evacuation order that was going into effect.

How quickly will the local economy recover?

The good news here is that the Savannah area job market will likely bounce back relatively quickly.

The ongoing tourism boom will prompt new hiring at many bars and restaurants, and retail employment will be buoyed by the holiday shopping season, which is right around the corner.

Construction will likely increase as insurance payments and various other forms of assistance reach households that bore the brunt of the storm surge.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that we have been impacted by hurricanes for two consecutive years. To what extent will coastal development and population growth be affected? What will happen if we face another evacuation in 2018 or 2019?

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City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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