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After the deluge: Salvage issues for motor vehicles after the hurricanes

It's estimated that Hurricane Harvey damaged more than 1 million vehicles, including 500,000 in Houston alone. (Photo; American Technologies, Inc.)
It's estimated that Hurricane Harvey damaged more than 1 million vehicles, including 500,000 in Houston alone. (Photo; American Technologies, Inc.)

There are more than a few things, like oil, that do not mix well with water.

Topping that list for this summer are motor vehicles, which is a costly reality for vehicle owners and insurers after the deluge-heavy hurricanes that have targeted the coastal United States.

Water-damaged cars

Once Hurricane Harvey abated it was clear vehicle salvage numbers would jump in greater Texas. With car ownership in Houston running at about 1.8 vehicles per household and a population of nearly 7 million people, thousands of private, commercial and dealer-owned vehicles have been exposed to water inundation, according to recent Wired magazine coverage.

Salvage numbers for Florida after Hurricane Irma should fall well short of Houston’s toll simply because hypervigilant public authorities, supported by 24-hour media coverage, kept most drivers off the roadways during Irma’s landfall. Even so, vehicle claims will bump up in the Southeastern U.S. as well. Hurricane Maria’s vehicle claims in Puerto Rico are as yet to be determined because the damage has been so pervasive.

Typical outcome of catastrophic storms

Although these were dreadful events experienced by millions of people, their watery consequences for property like motor vehicles are typical for catastrophic storms. However, even the desert West is not immune to the inimical power of water.

Monsoonal rainstorms can drop huge amounts of water in short, quick bursts that can race through gorges and turn low-lying areas into temporary lakes. Both scenarios endanger drivers as well as their vehicles and trigger water-damage claims in summertime.

Related: Hail, water and wind are top auto perils between March and May

Flooded car in Houston after Hurricane Harvey

A pickup truck was trapped in a flooded parking lot after Hurricane Harvey swept through Houston. (Photo: American Technologies, Inc.)

Can that vehicle be saved?

So how does nature-borne water damage motor vehicles? There are a few facts to gather right from the start about the water-logged car or truck. Was it exposed to saltwater or freshwater? Beyond that, was it operating or turned off when inundated? What was the maximum height of the waterline and the duration of the water exposure? Add to the list: the year, make and model of the vehicle. The answers will help determine if the vehicle is potentially salvageable.

The bad news is that saltwater is more inimical to motor vehicles than fresh. Salt is corrosive; not only will it damage the body, finish and interior, high levels of saltwater exposure will harm motor vehicle parts, especially hoses and low-voltage electrical sensors. The damage potential increases if the vehicle was driven through salty flood waters and the liquid permeated the drivetrain and electronics. Invasive mud and silt also wreak havoc on sensitive mechanical systems and parts.

While fresh water is less problematic, and raises the potential for a successful salvage of the water-damaged vehicle, it is challenging to address every consequence of the harm. It is common for repair issues to crop up months, sometimes years, after water exposure. A single post-flood fluid change is never sufficient. The best strategy requires follow-up checks of the affected vehicle systems and regular flushing and fluid changes as well. Mildew, mold and rust present additional problems.

Electronics & water don’t mix

It is not surprising to learn that the newest vehicles with their slew of onboard electronics are the least repairable of all makes and models following water intrusion. The worst of all possible scenarios for vehicle owners and insurers is a newest-model vehicle exposed to extensive and sustained saltwater flooding. However, there is a strong chance that owner purchased comprehensive insurance coverage, thus ameliorating at least a portion of property losses sustained as a result of severe rainstorms.

Of all natural disasters, at least wet deluges and strong winds offer the possibility of prior warning. Weather forecasters have access to immense amounts of data that enable them to deliver timely storm updates to vulnerable populations.

Preparation is the single most important advantage to those in harm’s way. Unfortunately, motor vehicles are not that easy to safeguard from harm: higher ground is elusive in flood plains; dealerships and businesses with fleets have vast numbers of vehicles on their lots exposed to weather; and many people do not have handy garages and shelter for their rolling stock. At least those who heed the warnings and prepare to the best of their abilities have the best chance of emerging with life and property intact. 

Chris Chriest is the managing engineer at Peter R. Thom and Associates Inc., a national firm of consulting automotive engineers. Contact him at for more information.

Related: After the flooding: 6 tips for vehicle owners and buyers

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