Automobile rental businesses and insurers are grappling with the aftermath of Thursday's flash flooding that struck the Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas.
Vehicle owners have been filing claims since the extreme weather, which included tornadoes in some parts of the state, but nowhere close to the volume seen during August 2016 when several days of rain triggered backwater flooding from overwhelmed creeks, bayous and rivers. By comparison, Thursday's flash flood of rain over the course of a couple of hours collected rapidly and strained drainage systems.
"We've gotten a few claims but nothing like we thought we were going to get," said Louis Fey, vice president of risk management at BXS Insurance Inc., the insurance arm of Bancorp South and immediate past president of the Professional Insurance Agents of Louisiana.
"We had a few (claims) where vehicles were flipped over related to the tornado or people driving down the road and hitting deep water," Fey said.
A woman became trapped inside her car in a ditch filled with nearly seven feet of water Thursday morning.
State Farm, Louisiana's largest vehicle insurer, had received 320 auto claims as of midday Friday under its "catastrophe code," which would have included Thursday's storms. The numbers are statewide; precise flooded vehicle claims and claims by metro areas were not yet available.
"We continue to monitor and respond to reports of damage … it's probably safe to say the majority of the claims are related to the heavy rain and flooding," said spokesman Michal Brower. "Customers with damage are encouraged to report their claim as soon as possible."
State Farm recommends that vehicle owners not turn on a flooded vehicle's engine until checked by a mechanic, take photos and video of the flood water level inside the vehicle and said that, in general, comprehensive vehicle coverage typically covers flooding but may be subject to a deductible.
Progressive Insurance, the second-largest automobile underwriter in Louisiana, declared a catastrophe for Baton Rouge and Lafayette and has employees assisting customers — but declined to share claim volume information citing competitive reasons. Allstate also declined to comment.
One car rental company sent along more vehicles to meet demand for temporary automobiles while customers wait for repairs or car replacements.
Enterprise has already brought in a "couple hundred vehicles into affected areas from our locations in surrounding cities," spokesperson Lisa Martini said Friday.
"Right now, this seems to be more localized flooding event than what we experienced in 2016," Martini said. "We still don't have a full picture of the demand until some of the damage to vehicles is assessed … however we are beginning to see an uptick in demand."
Hertz said it has as "adequate fleet to support the current needs of our customers and those impacted by the flooding."
"While the demand for car rental is currently not as high as we saw after the flooding in 2016, it is our goal to be well prepared for any severe weather event," the company said.
Some Baton Rouge residents already are itching to replace water-damaged vehicles.
At Gerry Lane Chevrolet on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge, Sales Manager Johnathan Moore said as of early Friday afternoon the dealership had received “about 20 to 30 phone calls” from people with water-damaged vehicles. Moore said he expects people will start shopping for cars and trucks next week after they hear from their insurance company.
Moore said he doesn’t expect things will be half as busy as they were after the August 2016 flood. “People were scrambling then,” he said. “That was more of a catastrophe.”
Will Green, president of the Louisiana Automobile Dealers Association, said in his conversations with car dealers Friday no one had indicated that they’ve seen anywhere near the activity experienced after the 2016 flood. Green said he has seen some dealers go to social media with information on how to handle a car that has taken on water.
“Sometimes that electrical damage doesn’t show up right away and maybe customers might start trickling in to the service departments,” he said. “But nobody has mentioned to me about having full service bays.”
After a flood is also a time for prospective buyers of used cars to be cautious, though state law prohibits the sale of flooded vehicles without disclosure and titles for flooded vehicles must be marked as having water damage. If a car is sold and was exposed to flooding but that information was withheld from the buyer, Louisiana residents have one year after the transaction to bring legal action, records show. If vehicles are considered a total loss due to flooding, state law prohibits the vehicle from being resold.
Consumers can submit complaints to the state online. The National Insurance Crime Bureau has a free vehicle identification number check online for consumers to discover whether a vehicle has been reported as a total loss due to flooding.
The VIN check tool was created after Hurricane Katrina when so many vehicles were destroyed in 2005, according to National Insurance Crime Bureau spokesman Frank Scafidi.
"We were collecting all the VIN numbers for all those damaged vehicles because we knew that so many people may be buying them up on the black market," Scafidi said.
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The database covers roughly 90 percent of vehicles on the road across 1,100 insurers across the country. Sometimes flooded vehicles not may be reported as such if the title was not required to be changed, which largely depends on state law.
"If it wasn't insured for that damage, it wouldn't show up in our VIN check," he said. "If you're considering a used vehicle and you aren't sure of the history but the price is very attractive, check for places water might have gotten in, like the trunk inside the lowest part where the spare tire well is. If you pull the spare out and there are mud deposits, (it may have been flooded)."
Otherwise, if there are rusty bolts underneath the vehicle, it may have been flooded, he suggested. A musty smell is also an obvious sign of previous water damage.
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