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August and September can be an uneasy and uncertain time of year as tropical waves start rolling off Africa with alarming regularity, forming up into cyclones whirling toward the Caribbean, leaving residents at the mercy of nature’s whims.

Sometimes — as with Marilyn in 1995 or Hugo in 1989 — there is a devastating direct, local hit.

More often than not, the storms bypass the territory, sometimes in near misses, brushing by and bringing weather; sometimes making landfall elsewhere; and sometimes heading out to open ocean.

But regardless of whether a hurricane makes landfall locally, it still can pack a punch for local pocketbooks.

“Every summer we go through this. I’ve been here 16 years and there hasn’t been one year I can think of where the ships were not affected by hurricanes,” West Indian Co. President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Thomas said. “Every year there’s been some effect from hurricanes.”

Thomas said that because cruise lines tend to “run away from storms” in an attempt to give their passengers the best-possible experience, local cruise ship calls may fluctuate significantly from their schedule during hurricane season, even when there has been no local impact from any storm.

“If there’s a storm in the western Caribbean, the ships will come to the eastern Caribbean,” he said, noting that the opposite also is true.

Some years, the movement of the storms may send local financial windfalls and in others, the territory takes a direct monetary hit.

In 2004, cruise ship passenger counts on St. Thomas jumped by more than 200,000 over the previous year because of the damage Hurricane Ivan did in the western Caribbean, Thomas said.

“In that case, the ships then came to the eastern Caribbean and we were the beneficiaries,” he said.

More recently, Hurricane Earl’s brush of the Virgin Islands, which brought tropical storm conditions, sent five cruise ships scrambling for other ports of call and prompted another ship to postpone its visit to St. Thomas.

Those five ships would have brought about 22,000 visitors to the island, and the cancellations resulted in an estimated loss of $10.7 million in direct and indirect revenues — a figure that factors in the average amount spent by cruise visitors to the island and the economic multiplier effect of money, Thomas said.

Even hurricanes that are not in the Caribbean can have an impact.

Hurricane Igor, churning away more than 600 miles east of the northern Leeward Islands on Tuesday, prompted two cruise ships — the Oasis of the Seas and Carnival Dream — to reschedule their calls, Thomas said.

They went to St. Martin on Tuesday instead, and plan to call on St. Thomas today. The schedule was changed in an attempt to avoid the worst of the waves that Igor is generating, Thomas said.

The tourism sector is not the only one affected by hurricane season.

Lauritz Mills, director of the V.I. Bureau of Economic Research, said that the agency has not yet started to figure the economic impact of Hurricane Earl’s brush with the
territory.

Figuring the economic impact of any storm is a complex process, looking both at damages from the storm itself and at losses, such as the loss of cruise ship passengers and the money they would spend, she said.

Mark Walters, director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday that the preliminary estimate of Hurricane Earl damages to public facilities, including removal of debris and overtime for public employees to perform emergency protective measures is approximately $2,173,000. That assessment is ongoing, he said.

Mills noted that in the private sector, different types of businesses likely had drastically different experiences before and after Earl.

Some stores — those selling food, batteries and emergency supplies — likely did well as people scrambled to stock up for the storm, she said. Gas stations stayed busy the day before Earl neared the territory, as residents rushed to fill up their tanks.

But small retail stores without generators may have been without power for several days in Earl’s wake, causing business to slow or shut down altogether until the lights came back on, she said.

Jose Belcher, president of the Havensight Mall Merchants Association and owner of three Caribbean Surf Co. shops on St. Thomas, noted that the experience for each of his stores was different — with a power outage preventing him from opening one store and the loss of the cruise ships affecting another.

Havensight “was cleaned up the next day, and the generators were running,” he said. “If we’d had cruise ships, we’d have been ready.”

For small businesses in hard economic times, losing even a week’s business “would hurt anybody,” he said.

Omer ErSelcuk, Seaborne Airlines president and chief executive officer, said that every hurricane season affects his business.

“What we see is when the weather comes through, even if you don’t get directly hit, you’re going to get weather where you can’t fly,” he said. “And what happens in that situation is your customers don’t rush back the next day and patronize your business because they’re busy cleaning up their own messes, even if it’s only minor.”

He said that same situation tends to affect other businesses in the service sector, as well as some retail stores. Seaborne compensates by trying to keep its expenses down during hurricane season, he said.

Willie Hamed, general manager of Plaza Extra on St. Thomas, said that although grocery stores do tend to see a business boon in the days when a hurricane is threatening the islands and people are stocking up, they also tend to see business drop the following week if the storm was not a direct hit.

“It really balances out,” he said. “Most of the time, the week after, people don’t go shopping. But if a storm hits, we’re all in a world of hurt. It’s no good for anybody. We pray no hurricane comes.”

— Contact Joy Blackburn at 774-8772 ext. 455 or e-mail jblackburn@dailynews.vi.