By contrast, rebuilding and restocking by businesses and consumers add to the nation's gross domestic product — the broadest gauge of economic production. GDP measures all goods and services produced in the United States.
Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, expects the storm to shave 0.1 to 0.2 percentage point from annual economic growth in the October-December quarter. He thinks the economy will grow at an annual rate of 1.5 percent to 2 percent in the fourth quarter. It grew at a 2 percent annual rate last quarter.
But Ashworth said any losses this quarter should be made up later as rebuilding boosts sales at building supply stores and other companies.
"People will load up on whatever they need to make repairs — roofing, dry wall, carpeting — to deal with the damage," he said.
In the short run, Caranci said the economic damage could be worst for small businesses that lack the money and other resources to withstand lost sales.
"It will remain to be seen how long disruptions to electricity and infrastructure persist," she said.
But she noted that the storm should help the construction industry, which shed millions of workers after the housing bust. Many who lost construction jobs were skilled employees with disproportionately high pay, and the loss of those jobs hit the economy hard.
Major retailers began trying Tuesday to ramp up their operations before the critical holiday shopping period.
Sears Holdings Corp., which operates Kmart and Sears, said 80 of its stores were still closed at midday Tuesday, down from 187 Monday. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer, said it was working to reopen the 168 stores it closed. And Darden Restaurants Inc., parent of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, by Tuesday afternoon had reopened roughly 160 of the 260 restaurants it closed Monday.
Retailers collect up to 40 percent of their annual revenue in November and December. Retailers, excluding restaurants, could lose at least $25 billion in sales this week, estimates Burt Flickinger III of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. Because of the storm, he's reduced his forecast for holiday sales to a 2.1 percent increase over last year from the 3.2 percent increase he had predicted earlier.
Reopening is often difficult after a storm. Because New York's subways and buses remained closed Tuesday, it was hard for many employees to get to work. Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue flagship stores stayed closed Tuesday — bad news for those retailers, because major department stores can derive 10 percent of annual sales from their Manhattan locations.
Still, those stores that could open for business did. A Westside Market in Manhattan remained open 24 hours a day throughout the storm, even though only about 20 percent of workers managed to show up Monday and Tuesday.
"They found a way to get here — I don't know how," store manager Jay Bilone said.
Insured losses from the superstorm will likely total $5 billion to $10 billion, the forecasting firm Eqecat estimates. Insurance losses are typically a fraction of the overall cost.
Chubb, Allstate and Travelers are the insurers most likely to suffer losses, said Greg Locraft, an analyst at Morgan Stanley. Those companies claim a major share of the affected areas.
But "as an insurance event, Sandy is going to be a blip on the balance sheet," said Duncan Ellis, U.S. property practice leader at Marsh, the insurance broker. "2012 has been a relatively catastrophe-free year."
Economists expect actual property damages from Hurricane Sandy to exceed those caused last year by Hurricane Irene, which cost $15.8 billion. Irene had little effect on the nation's growth.
Sandy will likely be among the 10 costliest hurricanes in U.S. history. It would still be far below the worst — Hurricane Katrina, which cost $108 billion in 2005.