DICKINSON, Tex. — Every single mode of transportation Katrina Chadbourne's family owned was swallowed in Hurricane Harvey's flooding.
“My husband’s truck is gone,” Chadbourne said. “My daughter’s Lexus is gone. My husband’s Harley is gone.”
A pair of water scooters went under as the flood climbed her front steps, and then a kayak was lost in a failed attempt to save the scooters. Her “baby,” a red 2015 Mustang GT, was the last hope, and it was sitting at the McRee Ford dealership 20 miles southeast of Houston, where it was receiving new tires on a service lot. But that, too, was a goner; the dealership was among the hardest hit in the region, losing 700 vehicles to the murky floodwaters.
Harvey appears to be the most destructive event for cars in the nation’s history, based on early estimates, with floodwaters destroying hundreds of thousands of vehicles in a sprawling city that relies on them for much of its transportation.
The loss is having an immediate impact, preventing many people from being able to return to work, sending craftsmen scrambling for new vehicles as they hope to rebuild the region, and leaving auto dealers who face millions of dollars in losses racing to restock amid unprecedented demand.
“They say 500,000 total in Houston,” said Mitchell Dale, who owns McRee Ford, referring to initial estimates of how many cars were destroyed last week in the Houston area. Dale said his own automotive stock was worth about $28 million, and almost all of it is destined for the crusher. “We’re looking at, probably, unrecoverable uninsured losses of somewhere between $1 million and $1.5 million.”
Harvey’s financial toll has drawn comparisons to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, but because Houston is larger than New Orleans and the city’s storm was more brutal than Sandy, the region’s cars appear to have taken a bigger hit.
Sandy destroyed about 250,000 vehicles and Katrina claimed about 200,000, according to estimates. Harvey ruined 300,000 to 500,000 cars and perhaps far more, early analysis indicates, leaving as much as $2.7 billion to $4.9 billion worth of automotive damage in its wake, according to Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive.
Houston is a metropolis crisscrossed by some of the nation’s widest freeways, plagued by some of the nation’s longest commutes and home to a culture that treats driving like a constitutional right. Driving here is not just a choice but a way of life. Not being able to drive is an extremely disruptive aspect of the widespread flooding here, keeping families at home, workers from their jobs, and much of the city’s recovery in limbo.
For countless Houstonians like Chadbourne, 42, a crane operator who has no reliable way to get to work without her Mustang, the immediate outlook is dour. But for Chadbourne’s family, it’s perhaps even dangerous.
Her 18-year-old daughter underwent a heart transplant and has a suppressed immune system, she said. The last time they had to call an ambulance, it took an hour to get to the hospital and the girl nearly died.
“It’s all right,” Chadbourne said, steadying herself. “We’re alive.”
While people wait for insurance money, the search to find a working car can be a desperate pursuit. Carolyn and Glen Roberts — who lost their house and three cars to Harvey — raced to an Enterprise rental car outlet in Port Arthur but found it flooded and closed. They tried another and scored a working car for the next week — a red Hyundai Sonata.
“You can’t do anything without your car,” Carolyn Roberts said.
But they were the lucky ones. Enterprise had more than 2,500 active reservation requests in this region alone. On a normal day, it might have 30. Workers for the rental agency said they were struggling to bring in more cars on trucks from branches across the country.
‘A necessity in Texas’
In an auto-dependent community where hundreds of thousands of residents are suddenly lacking transportation, how does the nation’s fourth-largest city get back on the road? Insurance claims take time, and auto dealerships have to get back up and running to meet demand. And with a vehicle ownership rate of 94.4 percent, Smoke said, the metro Houston area is second only to Dallas-Fort Worth, which is a speck higher at 94.9 percent. The parts of New York where Sandy hit has a vehicle ownership rate of 71 percent.
“Vehicles are a necessity in Texas,” said Marc Cannon, the executive vice president of AutoNation, home to 17 dealerships in Houston that reopened last week with minimal damage. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a storm like this with the magnitude of the rain.”
At McRee Ford, the week was a complete disaster, beginning with an early morning call on Aug. 27 as floodwaters rose.
“The night watchman called me at 6 a.m. and told me every vehicle in the lot was flooded and water was in the building,” Dale said. A neighbor took Dale and his son out on an airboat the next morning to see what had become of the business, which the family has operated for 70 years.
They drifted past rows of new pickups, some in water that reached the roof. The same was true for the used cars, as well as the customers’ cars in the service lot, one of which was Chadbourne’s Mustang.
“I walked on the show floor,” Dale recalled. “I just said a prayer.”
By Friday, as floodwaters had begun to retreat, insurance adjusters had arrived and they were eyeing the mud-streaked vehicles. The situation was bad: Cars that looked okay were useless under the hood because of destroyed electrical systems. Even with repairs, managers said, the vehicles would be unsafe to drive.
Luis Sahagun, a spokesman for Farmers Insurance, said the company had received 9,000 auto claims at the end of last week. Asked to describe a typical payout after a flood, Sahagun said he couldn’t answer.
“A car could be in six inches of water with minimal damage or six feet of water, where it’s a total loss,” he said. “There are so many variations in miles and models and conditions, as well. Each case is unique.”
Jim Camoriano, a spokesman for State Farm, said the insurance giant had received 28,600 auto claims in Texas related to Harvey as of Saturday. An additional 910 claims had arrived from Louisiana and states as far away as North Carolina, he said, noting that 80 to 85 percent of the Harvey claims are “total losses” and 75 percent of the affected vehicles are no longer drivable.
“We’ve got 10 catastrophe response vehicles on the ground and 1,000 people we’ve brought into our offices this weekend to process claims,” Camoriano said. “The way the storm just hovered over the Houston area for a few days, creating those massive rainfall totals, has made this a very significant event.”
Rushing to restock
Houstonians need cars, and as residents begin to assess damage to their homes and vehicles, automakers are rushing to restock their inventory, experts said. They’re expecting another flood, they said, this one made up of customers browsing their lots with insurance money in hand. Some are comparing the post-Harvey “mad rush” to tax refund season.
Dale said his managers were trying to restock through auctions, but there is no timeline: “We have no idea when we’ll be fully functional.”
At AutoNation, while the company was still checking portions of its inventory for damage Friday, the sales force was back in business.
“We’ve already sold 40 vehicles at AutoNation Ford of Katy in the last 24 hours,” Cannon said. “A lot of the people showing up are craftsmen who need to get back to work and they’re buying trucks and SUVs. They want to get Houston rebuilt.”
The phones were still down at Philpott Motors in Port Arthur three days after the hurricane, but Mark Fiorenza, a sales consultant, was well aware that people all over Southeast Texas are “desperate for vehicles.”
He said customers were calling and hearing a busy signal and figured the dealership was closed, so Philpott staff went on Facebook Live on Friday and encouraged people to contact them through social media or on cellphones to buy new cars and trucks. Fiorenza noticed something about customers since the hurricane: No one wants a car.
“Everybody coming out wants a Jeep or truck,” Fiorenza said, noting that the problem is the dealership needs more trucks to sell. “We need them bad.”
Phillip Sommer, the owner of Texas Auto, a used-car dealership with two locations in Houston, said the impending buying frenzy comes with some downsides.
Dealerships are going to sell a lot of vehicles, he said, but the lack of inventory is going to drive prices up by several thousand dollars. Higher prices mean more challenges for buyers as they try to get auto loans, which are determined by blue-book value, not retail prices, he said.
“Dealers are essentially going to be fighting to buy inventory at auctions, increasing the price,” Sommer said. “A lot of people assume that when prices are high dealers are making a killing, but we’re actually making less money.”
The higher prices will create another obstacle for buyers, Sommer said: to stand out from the pack, some dealerships will be tempted to offer customers a deal by quietly hawking storm-salvaged vehicles full of hidden kinks..
“In this price-driven economy, people will be tempted to take the cheapest deal available and they’re going to get what they pay for,” he added.
After Hurricane Katrina, the National Insurance Crime Bureau partnered with Louisiana state police to catalogue tens of thousands of damaged vehicles littering the Gulf Coast before they could reenter the auto market.
Despite their exhaustive work, damaged Katrina vehicles were found in 26 states outside of the Gulf region within months of the storm, some as far away as New York and California, with snakes and alligators inside, according to the bureau.
In Dickinson last week, Chadbourne found her baby — the red Mustang — and realized she’d have to say goodbye to it. A technician tried to open her car but gave up on getting the key to work. The car’s electrical system was fried and the door wouldn’t open. She decided she’d have to come back later to get CDs she’d left inside.
Chadbourne looked out across a sea of drowned vehicles.
“I might be back for an Edge soon,” she told the technician.
“You may have to wait a while,” he said.
Frankel reported from Lake Charles, La., and Port Arthur, Tex. Holley reported from Washington.