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Why a blizzard in a small part of the country is national news


Every so often the news cycle escalates New York City’s weather into a national news story. Information about impending extreme precipitation dominates headlines and push notifications, and ends up irritating people time zones away, reigniting charges of coastal elitism and the New York-centric perspective of the media.

But there’s a good case to be made that a white-out of the I-95 corridor is a national news storm. If a butterfly’s wing-flap can start a storm across the globe, you can be sure a storm in the largest US city (and capital 225 miles south) will be a big deal. A New York blizzard isn’t a national news story, it’s a global news story.

The easiest way of geographically illustrating a storm’s impact is to look at flights, which extend past the 50 million people in the I-95 corridor who have been under winter storm warning.

On Monday, airlines canceled Tuesday’s 5,300 flights ahead of Stella out of New York airports. If there are, say, 200 people on each plane, that’s well over a million people affected, plus their families, and jobs, which—since they’re flying—may not be in New York. “Large storms like Stella might also have down line impacts as well—on airport operations, aircraft availability, etc.,” Jonathan Guerin of United Airlines told Yahoo Finance.

Blizzards and bad weather in one part of the country can have cascading effects. Source: Getty

The net economic impact of closed businesses and lost commerce is potentially enormous. “At 250 working days per year, daily output in the [D.C. and the Northeast] region is worth about $16 billion,” writes Ryan Sweet, Director of Real-Time Economics at Moody’s Analytics. “Assuming the region’s economy is shut down entirely for one day and none of the lost activity is recouped, the hit to US GDP would be a couple of tenths of a percentage point.” Freelancers and hourly workers lose a full day of work, dampening their spending power, and parents faced with school closings must figure out some way to deal with childcare, and often that means staying home—out of the work force and hampering productivity.

In reality, the figure is much less than $16 billion, but it’s still pretty big. According to Sweet, the figure is unlikely to impact GDP significantly. Last year, Moody’s analyzed that Winter Storm Jonas, which hit the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, cost the economy between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion. This is still a lot of money, but because some workers could soldier on at home with power still on, damage was mitigated. “However, because of the timing, occurring late in the quarter, there is an increased risk,” this year’s analysis notes. “There is less time for the lost output to be made up during the quarter than if the storm occurred in January or February.” And, Sweet says, the fact that the storm falls on March’s payroll reference week means jobs data may be skewed due to delayed hiring and firing.

Hurting the supply chain

A solid portion of these effects are mostly concentrated locally, but when it comes to the global supply chain, a storm can easily crack a tiny link, disrupting businesses. Logistics services like FedEx and UPS cannot proceed as normal following groundings and road closures. “We suspend our pickup and delivery services when that safety is at risk on the roads,” says Susan Rosenberg, a UPS spokeswoman. “Even if we process packages through contingencies, there may be limitations for final delivery if roadways are not accessible and customers close their businesses.” To that end, many business have large presences in the Northeast, like TJ Maxx and Lululemon, and a snowstorm isn’t a small issue in terms of lost sales from people kept at home for a few days.

According to a 2014 report by the supply chain management faculty at University of Tennessee, “in 2011 in the United States alone, there were 98 natural disasters (severe weather, floods, earthquakes, [etc.]). These events resulted in over $26 billion in business losses, with over 65 people losing their lives.” The report notes that most companies do not prioritize risk management in these cases “without a crisis to motivate action.”

Highlighting how regional weather can have international importance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump delayed their meeting – which was scheduled for Tuesday – until Friday, changing the date of a much anticipated meeting. The Fed meeting will be happening on schedule, on Wednesday and Thursday, however; but the fact that they spoke about delaying it due to weather is proof of a storm’s newsworthiness. The results of these meetings will have cascading effects across the economy.

With all this potential for disruption to far-flung regions of the globe, weather really can be a major news story in a significantly globalized world—or even “nationalized,” given how large the US is. You may have never heard of Hebron, Kentucky, but if you rely on Amazon for everything, you might want to have it saved in your weather app. One snowstorm there, hitting Amazon’s international Prime air hub, could magically turn your two-day shipping into one-week shipping.

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