When Hurricane Ian slammed into South Carolina’s beaches about a month ago, my wife and I were nestled in a luxury vacation rental in Pawleys Island, watching split-screen images of the storm: nonstop TV coverage and the vast, whipped-up ocean outside the sliding glass doors.
We were safeguarded by a sturdy four-story concrete building and in no physical danger. Lose a day of beach and tennis, get right back to it. The forecast for the next day was sunny and warm.
Suddenly, the power cut off.
When I stepped onto the outdoor corridor to see if our neighbors had lost electricity too, I looked down and was shocked to find the parking lot had become a lake and my 2006 Toyota Camry was steeped in a couple of feet of water.
It was one of an estimated 358,000 vehicles that, according to CARFAX, were damaged or totaled by Hurricane Ian.
Of course, the storm’s destruction of homes, mostly in Florida, has been far more devastating. But when your car is abruptly eradicated while you’re on vacation, it instantly creates a three-part nightmare: trying to repair it, getting back home and buying another vehicle.
The day before the storm, the building’s maintenance crew told renters whom they happened to see that the lot has a history of flooding during hurricanes, advising them to move their cars elsewhere.
No one told us.
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What to do after a car gets flooded
The last two days of our weeklong vacation were rapidly getting swept away by the current.
How high would the water go? It already covered about two-thirds of the tires, but would it rise to the trunk? The engine? It didn’t seem wise to try to drive it out of the lagoon, but should I try? A couple of guests were sloshing out in SUVs.
And what was this pernicious liquid anyway – rainwater or saltwater from the surging ocean? Saltwater is far more corrosive to metal and rubber parts.
As if this weren’t enough of a gut punch, it was my birthday.
Fortunately, the water never rose above the tires. Maintenance workers assured me it was rainwater. And by early evening, it had largely drained from the lot. Perhaps we could avoid calamity.
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The next day, when I got in the car, the floorboards were soaked but everything else was dry, including the engine. I crossed my fingers, turned the ignition key and all the dashboard lights were flashing.
But wait, the car started! The sodden floorboards had messed up the electronics but apparently, the engine was OK, or so I thought.
I borrowed a water vacuum from maintenance, removed as much as I could and called a local car repair shop. The customer service guy told me to drive the car over and they would check it out for free.
My first break. Or, so I thought.
When I did, the mechanic said the car’s body control module – the brain of the car’s electrical system – wasn’t communicating with his scanner. I needed to let the car dry out and shouldn’t drive it.
How about telling me that before I drive it over?
I got the car back to the resort but by later that night, it wouldn’t start. The power windows and door locks had stopped working. The car seemed a total loss.
Lesson No. 1: When your car floods and the floorboards are soaked, don’t drive it, even if you can.
The moisture can spread and you could cause a short circuit, says Robert Passmore, department vice president, personal lines, for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
“The main harness of the electronics goes right down the middle of the car” just above the floorboards, Passmore says. “Have it towed” to a service station. Even then, he said, “There’s a good chance it’s going to be a total loss.”
Making our way back home
I spent the final day of our vacation trying to book a rental car so we could get back home.
I had to rent one car to drop off at the airport in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a second from Raleigh to northern Virginia.
This required us to transfer a decade’s worth of golf clubs, tennis rackets, books, a deflated football, a heating pad and other assorted junk from the trunk of my Camry to rental car No.1, then to rental car No. 2 and finally to our townhouse.
Total cost: $312. This came out of pocket because my wife and I didn’t have car rental coverage on our insurance policy, figuring if one of our cars were damaged in Virginia, we could share the other one.
Buying a used car
None of these hassles compare to the stress of hunting for another used Camry during the past five weeks.
Since new cars were in short supply because of supply chain troubles early in the pandemic, buyers flocked to used ones, sending prices skyrocketing.
The national median dealer listing price for a used car on CARFAX in August was $29,000, up 58.4% from $18,300 in May 2020, according to the used car research company.
Recently, used car inventories have stabilized and prices have started falling. Until Ian, that is, which has thrown hundreds of thousands of car buyers into an already tight used car market, according to NerdWallet.
I’ve spent weeknights obsessively scrolling through endless listings for 2006 to 2017 Camrys on Cars.com, typically priced at $10,000 to $21,000, depending on the mileage and year. Weekends are consumed by treks to shiny major dealerships and cramped, rough-hewn used car lots to test drive a numbing parade of Camrys in search of that elusive model worth a suddenly exorbitant price tag.
I had researched what the fair price should be on the Kelley Blue Book, (typically several thousand dollars below the list price), and eagerly showed it to the salesperson.
They scoff. “Show me an actual car that sold at that price,” they say.
When you try to negotiate, a time-honored ritual, I thought, they say: “These days, the (list) prices are pretty firm.”
The big shiny dealerships, I learned, tack on hefty “processing” and “dealer prep” fees that can add a couple of thousand dollars to the cost. Some of the small used car places advertise good bargains and tell you on the phone the car you like is still available. But when you arrive you may learn it was sold days earlier.
Not to worry – they have others.
I found a 2006 Camry with 66,000 miles that drove nicely – the same model with the same mileage that I bought for $11,000 in 2011 and that was decimated by Ian.
The price: $10,998. I passed, unable to stomach paying the same amount for a car that should have depreciated by thousands of dollars over the past 11 years.
Of course, I filed a claim with the insurance company. I should expect to be paid what the car is worth in the current inflated market, something in between a dealer’s and a private seller’s sale price, Passmore says.
I’m still waiting for the check.
And still looking for another Camry.
Paul Davidson covers the economy for USA TODAY.