The brutal winter of 2013-2014 wreaked havoc on roads, homes, and most likely, your finances. It’s been a horrendously awful winter for many businesses as well.
There was reason for some to welcome the stormy, bitterly cold weather that descended on much of the nation in early 2014. Supermarkets thrived during the peak (nadir?) days of polar vortex frigidity as shoppers stocked up on staples in anticipation of waiting out the storms, and businesses selling plows and snowblowers understandably made a killing as the snow and ice piled up week after week.
Then there’s the rest of us, who will remember the winter that’s just passed as one chock full of tire-busting potholes, frozen pipes, roof collapses, and monster heating bills. Restaurants, retailers, car dealerships, delivery services, and other businesses have also suffered. Even some businesses that normally cash in when cold and snow arrive fared poorly because this winter brought just too much, well, winter. Travel Michigan noted that the ski and snowmobile business dipped in recent months because the weather has caused tourists cancel trips. Yes, people have been deciding it’s too cold and snowy to go … snowmobiling.
Here’s a look at a few of the groups that have gotten hammered by the winter of 2013-2014, and that are likely to bear the costs of the season for quite some time:
By late January, it was clear that the winter was shaping up as an epically bad season for potholes. The mix of heavy precipitation with rapid freeze-thaw cycles has resulted in an inordinately large number of potholes on roads, and dangerous, tire-wrecking conditions have arrived much earlier than usual in the season. Drivers shouldn’t expect the pothole plague to disappear anytime soon, as local public works crews have been overwhelmed by requests to fix damaged roads. Cities like Des Moines, Iowa, have received more than 600 calls since December from citizens reporting potholes, for instance, while greater Indianapolis has fielded more than 10,000 pothole service requests this season.
Every day, it seems, there are more reports of potholes causing chaos for drivers—for instance, a huge pothole on I-75 in Detroit this week, which caused traffic to slow to a crawl as two lanes were closed so that crews could do a quick patch job. “It’s the worst we’ve seen it in decades,” a West Virginia DOT spokesman, speaking of this winter’s potholes and road conditions, told the MetroNews recently. “It’s unbelievable.”
Last fall, a transportation research group known as TRIP released a report on bumpy roads, indicating that during a normal year, drivers fork over the equivalent of $277 per year due to vehicle repairs, tire wear, and depreciation thanks to potholes and generally poor road conditions. This year, drivers should anticipating paying a lot more than that.
Unusually cold temperatures make for unusually high heating bills. This is especially the case for homes heated by propane, thanks in part to a propane shortage that hit several states early this year. Citing data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, USA Today reported last week that the average homeowner will pay 54% more this year for heating a home with propane. Homes in the Midwest heated by propane will see their bills soar the highest, from an average of $1,333 last year to $2,212 for this season. Homes heated with electricity, natural gas, or coal, meanwhile, are projected to face bills that are 5% to 10% higher than last year.
Beyond budget-busting heating bills, homeowners around the country have been hit with plenty of other costs related to the brutally cold winter. The list of headaches—and hefty expenses—includes a heaping share of frozen pipes, roof collapses, and ice dams. Oh, and soon, flooded basements are probably inevitable. As one insurance agent told the Detroit News, as spring arrives, “The warmer temperatures will exaggerate and accelerate the melt, and then we’re going to have basement issues.”
State and Local Governments
Around the nation, many towns have already exhausted the budgets they allocated to clearing and salting roads and fixing potholes. In many cases, local authorities have been forced to use emergency funds to keep roads open and safe. West Virginia, for instance, just announced it was increasing the spring pothole-patching budget to $30 million, up from $18 million.
In recent weeks, states have been scrambling to round up precious road salt to cope with storm after storm. Things were so bad in New Jersey that the transportation department warned the state might be forced to close down major roads—even interstates—because crews didn’t have enough salt. Inevitably, the combination of high demand and insufficient supply of salt led to soaring prices; in some cases, the cost of road salt rose by a factor of four. The Washington Times noted that some salt supply companies have seen shippings triple in recent months and net four-quarter earnings rise by as much as 94%.
Abnormally cold weather has caused people to stay inside rather than go out and spend money. That’s the basic explanation used by car dealerships, fast food, and other business categories for months of underwhelming sales tallies. The list of businesses blaming Mother Nature for subpar earnings and sales reports also extends to the likes of Federal Express, which said all the storms resulted in it losing $125 million in profits last quarter, and Walmart, which pointed to snow and cold weather as a reason for slumping sales in January and early February.
Speaking of the world’s largest retailer, Walmart just announced a huge lawn and garden sale that plays off homeowner desires to shake off winter. “Given the extreme winter many of our customers experienced, we know they are preparing to restore their gardens and outdoor living spaces,” Michelle Gloeckler, senior vice president of home, Walmart U.S., said via press release.
Of course, Walmart also helps the sale, featuring $1.97 bags of mulch, discounts on grills, mowers, and the like, will help the company recover from the brutal winter and kick off a big spring.
The bad news for consumer, homeowner, driver, and retailer alike may be that, despite what the calendar says, winter—meaning cold and snow—hasn’t necessarily disappeared. The latest extended forecasts from the National Weather Service, appropriately published in angry CAPS, offers the following predictions for the days and weeks ahead: