In the wake of Hurricane Sandy—as is often the case following a major natural disaster—economic pundits perform an intellectual dance, arguing whether or not a hurricane is ultimately good for the economy, especially during a recession. I want to take a narrower perspective, asking whether trucking volumes improve following a major hurricane.
The theory goes as follows. A hurricane such as Sandy destroys a large amount of physical property (e.g. houses, office buildings, shops, and infrastructure). Following the storm, the area slowly rebuilds, often renovating older and deteriorated construction along the way. This (re)construction activity requires a large volume of building materials, which—you guessed it—need to be trucked.
Although the story seems plausible, it’s ultimately an empirical question whether a hurricane leads to a significant uptick in trucking activity. To investigate this, I’ve plotted the timing of several major U.S. hurricanes along with the Transportation Services Index for Freight,reported monthly by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics since 1990. This index measures national freight activity and is seasonally-adjusted, which is key in this case because the “hurricane season” largely overlaps the annual peak trucking season. Thus, the test is to see whether hurricanes generate spikes in transportation volumes.
Eleven of the thirty most costly U.S. mainland tropical cyclones from 1900-2010 have occurred since 1990, per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, .pdf report, Table 3a. on p. 9). To these, I’ve added Hurricane Irene (August 2011)for the figure below.
You can of course pass your own judgment on the results, but I think the data speak for themselves. To the extent that hurricanes boost trucking activity, the increase looks pretty small.
This is not to say that trucking is unaffected. In particular, some types of trailers (especially flatbeds) should realize bigger gains in volumes than others. But, I wouldn’t count on Sandy to revitalize the trucking industry.
Internet Truckstop Economist