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Your Car Has Been Through a Natural Disaster: What’s Next?

Photography by Ariel Elias

As this is being written, a natural disaster known as Hurricane Harvey is causing residents of Houston, Texas to wake up to their new reality following a life-changing event. Our hearts go out to them for all they have endured these past few days, and all they will face in the months and years ahead. Weather forecasters predicted epic rainfall but not to the extent seen at this time.

Hurricane force winds and tornadic episodes yield damage and destruction everywhere, the most visible being the abandoned vehicles seen on the side of the road. Officials at Cox Automotive, the parent company of Autotrader, expect to find upwards of 500,000 damaged or totaled vehicles in the region. That’s a prime example of a disaster.

There Are Other Types, Too

Take, for example, a recent visit to the Crescent City of New Orleans. The sun is shining during a late morning in the French Quarter. It’s time for brunch with friends, sightseeing and to, as the saying goes, "laissez le bon temps rouler" (let the good times roll). All is perfect until heavy summer rains, combined with non-working water pumping stations result in more than one-and-a-half feet of standing water, which combine to create a natural disaster in a town that is already located below sea level.

What do you do next? In the case of my daughter and her recent trip to Louisiana, she smartly waited about three hours until the water receded to a level below the doors of her 2013 Nissan Versa. They were well-sealed, but not Land Rover well-sealed. Once inside, wet carpets and the foul smell of stale air greeted her, fresh from underground pipes that carry what is loosely termed sanitary sewage, a concept that seems mutually exclusive.

Surprisingly and with great testament to the robustness of the Versa, the car started up and they were able to make the return journey to her home in West Tennessee, damp carpets and all.

That was the hard part. The next move was much more obvious and easily accomplished by a phone call to her insurance company. The company sent a mobile appraiser to size up the extent of the damage. After a thorough inspection, he determined the cost to repair would far exceed the actual face value of the car, classifying it as a total loss. He arranged for a rental car, and a tow vehicle to retrieve the now water-logged vehicle.

Once you know the extent of damage to the car, you will have a chance to logically think about the cost of repair versus replacement.

Michal Brower, southeast regional spokesperson for State Farm Insurance, recommends that owners of a flooded vehicle "should immediately look it over to inspect for damage. We ideally tell customers not to start a vehicle until it has been thoroughly inspected by a mechanic. The worst thing you can do when the floodwaters go down is to get in and start it. That could take a slightly damaged car and increase the problems tenfold," she said.

From a claims perspective," she continued, "document the damage with a smartphone camera, showing the highest level of water on your flooded vehicle." Typically, a waterline would appear on the side of the car and sometimes in the interior. With widespread acceptance of smartphones, it is a simple process to shoot, videotape and upload a claim through an insurance company’s online app.

Regardless, contact your insurance company as soon as you are safely able. The sooner you can, the sooner you will be able to get back on the road.

Policyholders should make sure the comprehensive portion of the policy (which covers flooding) is intact. "It’s always a good idea to visit with your agent once a year to determine whether you have enough, and the right type of insurance coverage," said Brower.

The Hard Part Is Over

Once you reach out to your insurance dealer, the hard part is over. That call will get the ball rolling to get the car inspected, whether you take it somewhere or the representative calls you.

In the case of a large-scale disaster, insurance companies like State Farm will set up a location where their insured customers will drive their vehicles (if possible) to adjusters who will determine if the vehicles can be saved. Some are obvious, as in the case of visible damage, while others require a sense of smell, as in the case of my daughter’s Nissan, which reeked of sewer water from the combined sanitary sewer system in New Orleans.

"We encourage getting the claim started right away so that you are able to quickly get back on the road to recovery," said Brower.

Value Comes Into Play

The amount of damage comes in to play, too. It is ultimately up to the adjuster to make that determination, because they’re the ones who inspect the vehicle for damage and how much it will cost to get it back into good working order versus the value of the vehicle before the incident.

Jonathan Klinger is the vice president for public relations at Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in insurance products for classic cars. The mindset for collector vehicles may be slightly different from that of a daily driver. "Is it a part of the family, an inheritance piece? With a collector vehicle, people are more than likely going to want to restore it after such a disaster, rather than have it claimed as a total loss, as you would with a new, modern-day vehicle," Klinger said.

A typical daily driver would rather be made whole by finding a replacement soon. That’s the difference between the two owners.

Common Sense Tips.

• Personal safety is above all else. If the vehicle is in a potentially dangerous situation, it can wait for the proper equipment to retrieve it. Conversely, wait until the water has receded or structural damage has been shored up (such as if the building a car was stored in collapses around it) until moving in to retrieve the vehicle. The vehicle is always secondary, regardless of what vehicle it is.

• Contact the insurance carrier, with as much documentation as possible. Take detailed photos. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, as a water event, any detailed photos that show a high water mark are a must. After waters recede, photograph the debris line that is usually left where the high water was on the side of the car. If that’s not readily distinguishable, take photos of close surroundings. A building wall, a tree, a post or anything that shows how high the water rose.

• Do what your carrier instructs you to do. It may take time for an adjuster to get to you, especially in the case of a widespread disaster like a hurricane, but be patient.

In the case of collector vehicles, Klinger suggests, "minimizing more damage by rolling down the windows so the car can start to air out and dry. Disconnect, if possible, the battery to disarm the electrical system. Be mindful of fluid spills. There is always the chance water got in, so you should try to flush the systems out ASAP, especially if it’s brackish water. This is most important, especially in the case where the car will sit for another 8-10 months before a proper restoration can occur," said Klinger. A call to a restorer asking what drying projects should be tackled first will go a long way towards minimizing further damage caused by corrosion.

Regardless, the sooner an insured starts a claim, the sooner they can be made whole again.

Related Reading:

Beware of Flood-Damaged Cars


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Mark Elias
Mark Elias is a writer and photographer specializing in automotive topics ranging from new and used cars to classics and motorsports. His first car was a Matchbox Jaguar D-Type. From there, things have only become larger. During his professional career, he has been a staff photographer for the Associated Press, a contract photographer for Bloomberg News, and a contributor to automotive outlets ranging from Autoweek, Automotive News, Excellence (Porsche), Bentley magazine, Autoevolution, Leftlanenews, and more. He is proud to be an AutoTrader contributor.

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