Dealers hunker down as Louisiana grapples with Isaac
Photo credit: Reuters
Hurricane Isaac was blasting the Gulf Coast today, but some car dealers in the flood-prone areas of Louisiana moved their cars to safety before it arrived.
As of this afternoon, Isaac had been downgraded to a tropical storm, but was moving slowly -- increasing the risks of greater floods. More than 500,000 electricity customers in southern Louisiana do not have power, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper Web site.
The storm, which caused Republican National Convention organizers to cancel many of Monday's events in Tampa, Fla., strengthened to a Category 1 hurricane before making landfall Tuesday evening on the southeastern Louisiana coast, according to Weather.com.
Earlier today, Isaac was bringing winds up to 80 mph and a nearly a foot of rain in most places, which may cause flooding that could damage vehicles.
Bob Israel, president of the Louisiana Automobile Dealers Association in Baton Rouge, said in an interview Tuesday that flying debris carried by high winds can damage vehicles, but the biggest concern is flooding. Israel could not be reached for an update on the situation today.
High waters already have topped a levee in the Plaquemines Parish in New Orleans and caused 12 feet of flooding in some homes, Weather.com reported earlier today.
In Metairie, a New Orleans suburb, dealers who remember the canals overflowing after Hurricane Katrina struck the area exactly seven years ago have moved select inventory to higher ground.
Gas prices rising
Gas prices continue to escalate as Isaac stalks the Gulf Coast.
Nationally, prices rose 5 cents a gallon in the last two days and 9 cents within the last week, said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.com.
Since last week, price increases on the coast have outpaced the national average.
Georgians have seen a 20 cent spike; Louisiana prices are up 14 cents; Mississippi experienced a 13 cent increase; and Alabama rates rose 11 cents a gallon.
DeHaan expects prices to linger at elevated levels for the next week or two, although much of it will depend on how quickly refineries come back on line.
He said many refineries are closed while some are operating at reduced rates. Some refineries also have lost power.
At the moment, 93 percent of the Gulf’s oil production is off line, according to reports.
“It’s possible that if infrastructure is closed an extended amount of time, that prices could drift higher in the weeks ahead if there is substantial damage,” DeHaan said.
Practice makes perfect
Israel said he spoke with a dealer in the Slidell, La., area Monday who was moving vehicles to the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.
Slidell is in a low area on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, about 35 miles north of New Orleans.
"They actually did a rehearsal last Friday, so [Monday], when they started moving cars, it went very smoothly," Israel said. "That's an arrangement through their insurance company. I'm sure everybody that is in an area where the dealership itself is subject to flood tries to find a place to move their cars."
He recalled that during a past storm, a New Orleans area dealership arranged to move 100 vehicles to an indoor, multilevel parking garage.
In Clearwater, Fla., Lawrence Dimmitt, owner of Dimmitt Chevrolet, said his employees have assigned tasks in emergency situations.
An employee phone tree lets workers know if the dealership will be closed.
The dealership also has an employee tasked with turning off the natural gas and water and moving vehicles away from trees.
"We dodged this one. It just kind of grazed us and we only had [Monday] with some rain and wind," Dimmitt said. "Generally, Tampa is pretty lucky. I don't think we've had a major [hurricane] since the 1940s."
Outsmart the storm?
Israel said some dealers have tried unsuccessfully to "outsmart" hurricanes.
A "couple of hurricanes ago," Israel recalled, a dealer southwest of New Orleans in Houma, La., decided to move his most expensive inventory to the two barns at his farm.
But Mother Nature had other ideas, and the vehicles were crushed as destructive winds destroyed both barns.
Israel said: "He laughed and laughed about that."
Southerners love their pick-up trucks and SUV's, which come in handy during natural disasters.
Trucks have always outsold passenger cars in that region, Israel said.
Their usefulness in dangerous situations, he said, is in the "back of people's minds" and could help their popularity.
If people decide to jump on the contraflow highway and skip town before a disaster hits, Israel said the gas tanks of trucks are big enough to get them 200 to 300 miles if necessary.
In a contraflow, Israel said all the lanes on the interstate highway go in the outbound direction.
The taller trucks also help people navigate flooded streets if they decide to stay home and wait the storm out.
"They're definitely what you want to have if you're evacuating your family," Israel said.
Reuters and Jamie LaReau contributed to this report.
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