Looters and broken levees

How one Iowa dealership found a new home after being wiped out by the region's devastating floods

McGurk Meyers Chrysler, above, in Coralville, Iowa, was forced set up shop temporarily in nearby Iowa City.
With the Iowa River rising dangerously on Thursday, June 12, federal officials stopped by Jeff Carr's Chrysler dealership in Coralville, Iowa.

They told Carr that he had about four days before floodwaters would reach his 43-year-old store, which sits about a half mile from the river. In fact, Carr had less than a day. By the time four days had elapsed, Carr was supervising the reopening of McGurk Meyers Chrysler at a new location 3.5 miles away. His old dealership was under water.

That Thursday night, Carr and his employees had begun moving the dealership's inventory to a safer place. They managed to transfer about 80 percent of the 120 vehicles in stock — about half new and half used — to a lot out of harm's way.

Carr's team finally went home around 1 a.m. on Friday, the 13th. After they left, Carr said, looters broke into the dealership. And some levees broke. About $750,000 worth of vehicles ended up under water, Carr said.

'Absolute morons'

When Carr returned the next morning, the road to the dealership was closed. Carr and his employees rolled up their pants and waded through more than 3 feet of water. When they got to the dealership, they filled up two Dodge Rams and a Ford F-250 with as many parts, tools, computers and documents as they could and hauled them out. Carr said his service manager turned the air intake valves on the trucks upside down so they wouldn't suck in water.

A crowd had gathered on dry ground. They cheered when Carr's trucks emerged from the water. Then his employees decided to go back again.

"Everybody's going; these guys truly are absolute morons," Carr said.

McGurk Meyers Chrysler was one of a handful of Iowa dealerships affected by flooding there. Many were lucky enough to avoid heavy flooding, but rising rivers still caused headaches for some, according to the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association.

When the rising Mississippi River forced the closure of the bridge between Burlington, Iowa, and Gulf Port, Ill., much of the staff of the Deery Bros., a multibrand dealership in West Burlington, couldn't get to work. So owner Brad Deery began looking for ways to help his staff cross the Mississippi without driving two or three hours out of their way.

He tried to hire an airplane, but local companies said they didn't have the proper licenses for transporting passengers. Finally, Deery hired a van to drive staffers to and from work. Since then, business has been slow.

"There's a silver lining in everything," Deery said. "I just haven't figured out what it is yet."

At McGurk Meyers Chrysler, in Coralville, Iowa, about $750,000 worth of vehicles ended up under water, dealer Jeff Carr said. This photo was taken on Wednesday, June 18, after the waters had begun to subside.

Drowning their sorrows

But at least Deery still had a dealership. By noon on Friday, the 13th, the staff at McGurk Meyers Chrysler was sitting in a bar, wondering what to do next. Carr said and one of his managers decided that they needed to find a new location.

They eventually found an empty building in Iowa City about 10 minutes from the old store. The place had a showroom, parking lot and what could be a service area. The previous occupant had manufactured gravestones there. McGurk Meyers Chrysler had a new store.

Carr said he and his staff have spent every day since then putting together a new dealership. A guy from the body shop made a sign. They ordered lifts for the service department. They recorded TV and radio spots advertising the new location. There were plans to bring a nurse in to give tetanus shots to the staffers who had been wading through dirty water. Staffers took turns watching the old store in case looters came back.

Many of the basic tools for running a dealership weren't available. Jeff Covington, the dealership's general sales manager, said they finally managed to get a printer running on Thursday.

"Every couple hours, something new happens," Covington said.

As of Thursday afternoon, June 19, McGurk Meyers had sold four cars. The dealership was planning to start servicing cars on Friday.

Carr expects business to pick up as Iowans file insurance claims to replace flood-damaged vehicles. The 41-year-old dealer, who has owned the store with partners for 11/2 years, said he's not yet sure how much the flood will cost.

"I can't say enough about our entire staff, right down to our detail guys," Covington said. "We've got a couple of people in the lobby talking to some salespeople right now; hopefully we'll sell a couple more." 

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