Car Carnage: Harvey, Irma, and the Pitfalls for Auto Owners

Pete Diaz of Key Largo had just spent $100,000 restoring his ’65 Corvette, but his garage didn’t prove much of a haven—it got inundated by Irma and is a total loss. Also gone is his wife’s 2016 Mercedes, another Corvette and a Harley.

Storm-wracked cars and trucks from Harvey pile up at Royal Purple dragstrip in Houston. (Royal Purple Raceway photo)

Should Pete have sought higher ground? Where would that have been? The hurricane covered the entire state of Florida, as well as several states to the north. We’ve seen images of flooded Ferraris, Lamborghinis and a Ford GT40, all of which are now at the Royal Purple Raceway, a dragstrip where waterlogged cars are going to die.

This image is from Connecticut in 2009, but you get the idea that you can lose your exotic–like this Audi TT ragtop–in a second. (Selbe Lynn/Flickr)

Import Image Racing deserves a Hero of the Month award for offering to take in enthusiast cars—free of charge—at its warehouse in Fort Myers. Other companies paid back in other ways. Tesla, for instance, used its vaunted update-by-wire ability to temporarily (until September 16) extend the range of its Florida-based cars—giving owners a better chance of getting away. It wasn’t announced ahead of time—people just woke up to find their Model X and S cars charged past any point they’d known in the past.

Like Image Import Racing, the Coast Guard warehoused its cars high and dry ahead of Irma. (Coast Guard photo)

I like the concept; it shows Tesla taps into original thinking. Of course, the roads were so clogged that not many stragglers could get out by that point, but the thought was there.

An Irma left-behind. Don’t buy this car! Even if it looks good! (Jacek Polchaco/Flickr)

Meanwhile, down in Texas, the state is reeling from Hurricane Harvey damage that could tally as much as $180 billion. A significant part of that loss is cars and trucks, and more than 100,000 claims have already been filed—the number could climb to 500,000. Katrina took out 600,000 cars in New Orleans.

Katrina made a big mess, and this Corvette was one of its victims. (JLBelteau/Flickr)

There’s a number of points to be made here. Florida hurricane victims with auto or truck losses should cross their fingers and file their claims as soon as possible, because the available insurance funds may be exhausted. As the New York Times pointed out, the big, deep-pocketed insurance companies long ago abandoned the state because of the coastal risks involved. The Florida Catastrophe Hurricane Fund has only $17 billion on hand, and that is not likely to cover the losses.

Second, be very careful of too-good-to-be-true car deals in the wake of Irma and Harvey. It’s not always obvious that a car has been in a storm, with water up to the bucket seats. There are plenty of quick fix-ups being offered for sale now, and new carpeting or upholstery is one sign of a problem.

A loaded car fleeing from Irma. They were getting out when the getting was good. (Abby Flat Coat/Flickr)

Another thing to watch out for is a “salvage” title—run from any such vehicle. Salvage titles go to cars declared a total loss. Legitimately, some undamaged parts can be sold off those cars, but buying these swimmers as bargains is asking for trouble. The National Insurance Crime Bureau maintains a free VINcheck system that will give you the straight dope on the title of any car you’re considering.

Other things to look for, according to NICB:

  • Rust on screw heads in the console area, where water doesn’t normally reach.
  • Dampness, mold or mildew in seatbelt retractors, spare wheel wells, in the crevices of alternators crevices and behind wiring harnesses..
  • Door-mounted speakers that no longer work because their cones got wet.
  • A white powder coating or pitting on aluminum or alloy wheels.

Have a mechanic check the car out if you don’t feel up to these tasks.

Storm response could only do so much after Irma, and their focus is on rescuing people, not vehicles. (Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr)

Getting back to the original question—what should you do to protect your car before the storm—the answer is pretty simple. Get vehicles to the nearest high ground, preferably indoors but if outside at least away from trees or objects that can become projectiles.

Even better, put yourself in the car, and drive it out of the danger zone well ahead of the crowds. That’s the good advice that state and federal officials were handing out weeks ahead of Irma. With Harvey, Houston’s mayor told people to stay put (to avoid gridlock on the highway) and time will tell if that was a smart decision or not.

Jim Motavalli

Tuesday, September 12, 2017