SIGN OF EXTREME COLD IN NEW YORK
Peter Morgan  /  Reuters
The Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline are reflected in the window of an ice cream parlor Friday in New York. With an Arctic chill setting in across the Northeast, the ice cream seller -- whose business was probably lukewarm anyway -- decided to close early.
By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 1/16/2004 9:41:02 PM ET 2004-01-17T02:41:02

The prolonged cold snap in the Northeast has helped some businesses and hurt others. But the impact has been strongest on suppliers and consumers of energy – especially natural gas.

As temperatures fell below zero overnight Thursday and stalled in single digits during the day Friday, power producers struggled to keep up with increased demand for electricity. In New England, businesses were warned that they may face rolling blackouts because of tight natural gas supplies due to a surge in demand for the fuel for home heating.

That higher demand sent natural gas prices higher in the futures markets Friday.

But prices are expected to ease once the thermometer begins to rise, because the spike in demand has been limited to areas of the country hit by the cold snap. Elsewhere, natural gas supplies are fairly strong, according to Kyle Cooper at Citigroup Global Markets.

“There"sThere's plenty of supply along the Gulf coast; Texas has been very moderate,” he said. “There is ample supply, it's just not simply the capacity to take it from here all  the way up to the areas in the far northeast.”

Video: Trading on weather Gasoline prices also surged as refineries pumped out more heating oil that usual to meet increased demand, leaving less oil to refine into gasoline. As of Friday, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline jumped to $1.59 – up 12 cents from a month ago. In some states prices have increased at an even faster pace; in Ohio, for example, prices have jumped by 21 cents in a month.

Heating oil prices also moved higher. Though part of the blame went to higher crude oil prices, which hovered above $35 a barrel Friday, “the unusually cold temperatures in the Northeast appears to have bolstered (profit) margins, at least in the short term,” according to UBS energy analyst Paul Ting. He figures refiner profit margins are up $1.31 to $6.29 a barrel nationwide, with East Coast refiners enjoying the highest margins.

Despite higher gasoline prices, full service gas stations reported doing a booming business with drivers reluctant to brave the cold to pump their own.

"Business doubles in this weather," said Don Weese, owner of Complete Car Care in Concord, N.H.. "Normally we do about 2,500 gallons a day. Now we're doing 4,500 to 5,000."

Heading South
Travel agents reported an increase in calls about trips south. Pam Hurley Moser, owner of Hurley Travel Experts in Portland, Maine, said people are seeking out "warmth-guaranteed" destinations such as Mexico and the Caribbean.  The message from customers, she said, is unmistakable: "Take me somewhere warm."

But other recreational destinations were forced to close. Big Rock ski resort in Mars Hill, Maine closed down for a second straight day Thursday because of the cold and wind. General manager Tim Prather said it was minus 12 at noon, which felt like 37 below zero with the wind.

"That's pretty brutal when you're going up a lift," Prather said.

Video: Northeast cold snap The weather even left race horses stranded in their stalls: New York’sAqueduct raceway canceled racing Friday as wind chills sent temperatures plunging well below zero.

For retailers, the outlook was mixed. While many shoppers preferred staying home to braving the single-digit weather, stores reported increased sales of cold weather clothing. Merrill Lynch analyst Dan Barry said thecold weather so far this month has helped sales of winter merchandise, and he expects monthly sales figures will be strong thanks to the unseasonably cold weather.

Lots of busted pipes
Some seasonal industries, like construction, slowed to a crawl.

But others saw a surge in demand. Plumbers from Detroit to Boston were doing a brisk business fixing broken boilers and burst pipes.

In Portland, Maine, Richard Waltz Jr., owner of Richard Waltz Plumbing and Heating, said his employees have logged hundreds of calls since they started working around the clock last Friday.

"It's been like a hospital here," he said. "We're triaging."

So far, the impact on the nation's farmers has been muted. The chilly Arctic air mass stalled over northern states has spared Florida citrus farmers from a possible freeze. Dry weather in the Great Plains has already stressed this year’s winter wheat crop, but there are no signs of cold weather that might cause further harm to the crop, a private forecaster said Friday.

"There is still no relief in sight from the dryness, but there also is no real cold weather so I suppose there's some relief from that," said Meteorlogix forecaster Mike Palmerino.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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