Miss. dealership devastated by tornado but open for business

There is no dollar estimate yet on the damage to the dealership. Much of the new-car inventory will have to be totaled. About a third of the roof in Boyte's service shop was destroyed.

Dealer Bob Boyte hunkered down Monday evening as a tornado barreled toward his home in suburban Jackson, Miss.

“It missed our house. We thought we dodged that one,” said Boyte, owner of Bob Boyte Honda in Brandon, Miss. “Then I got a phone call from one of my managers at the store, and he said, ‘We just got hit, and it looks like a war zone out here.’”

Boyte quickly drove the 10 miles to his store to assess the damage.

“I was pretty shocked,” Boyte said. “I spent my life trying to get a car dealership. Then you see your dreams blown away. It touches you, and, I admit, I got a little teary-eyed.”

Boyte said he was happy that no one was hurt, but the job of fixing the dealership has just begun.

There is no dollar estimate yet on the damage. Much of the new-car inventory will have to be totaled, and all of it needs repairs of one kind or another. About a third of the roof in Boyte’s service shop was destroyed. There is water damage throughout the building, and much of the furniture and fixtures must be replaced, he said.

Then, there are the brand signs worth “hundreds of thousands” of dollars that were ripped from the ground -- and found 3 miles away.

Still, Boyte is pulling it together. A temporary trailer will arrive today for his service writers, and nine of his 14 service bays are functional. Boyte, whose store sells about 2,400 new and used cars a year, has even sold a few cars this week.

“We’re on the radio advertising we’re open,” Boyte said. “So we’re ready to go.”

The storm

Brandon is located about 5 miles east of Jackson, Miss.

Boyte said the category F3 tornado struck his store at 6:46 p.m. local time Monday. A category F3 is considered a severe tornado, with 158 mph to 206 mph wind speeds.

Boyte knows the exact time it hit because his security camera recorded the storm rip his 800-pound shop door off and tear up his service department, he said.

“The whole shop looked like a vacuum cleaner,” Boyte said. “That shop door that got blown out went across the shop and knocked out the other shop door. It was sucking out lights, tools and front-end machines.”

Just nine seconds earlier, six of Boyte’s service employees had rushed into a nearby ladies room after some had seen the tornado wipe out a row of pine trees about 800 yards from the dealership, Boyte said. Nine other employees took shelter in the dealership’s Internet office. There were no customers at the time.

The last employee, who was directing everyone to shelter, had just closed the bathroom door when the tornado struck, he said.

The damage

Of the 400 vehicles in inventory, 130 have had windows sucked out and severe water damage, the rest all have some kind of wind damage to them, he said.

Several water mains broke, and there were three gas leaks throughout the building, prompting an immediate shut-off of water and gas, he said.

“We had to push out three cars from the shop because we didn’t want to start them up for fear it could spark a fire if the ignition spark hit the gas fumes,” Boyte said.

Boyte said water was spewing from the sprinkler system “everywhere,” the ceiling tile and insulation were caving in throughout the dealership, and the service wall was pushed inward by 2 to 3 feet.

About five hours of heavy rain followed the tornado, soaking more of the dealership innards, Boyte said.

Most of Boyte’s 64 to 70 employees showed up Tuesday to help clean, he said.

“We were all out here sweeping and picking up glass and sheet metal and insulation,” Boyte said.

But he sold four cars that day and three on Wednesday.

“We were focused on the cleanup and not focused on selling cars. But we had a couple people who stopped in and wanted to buy vehicles damaged by the storm,” Boyte said. “So we accommodated them.”

Playing the hand

Today is the first day Boyte’s service department is open.

Boyte had an architect examine the building to make sure it was structurally safe to occupy.

The service reception area is destroyed. Still, Boyte had a few service repairs this morning, with a temporary trailer used to help operate the department, he said.

This is not the first time Boyte and his staff have dealt with Mother Nature’s fury.

“We went through something similar to this in March 2013,” said Brandi Ray, Boyte’s comptroller. “We had a 20-minute hailstorm that damaged 100 percent of our inventory and all of our signs.”

Ray will spend the next six to eight months filing insurance claims and making sure the brick-and-mortar repairs get done.

“That’s the tough thing. We order shop doors, it may take us two weeks to get them, and light bulbs are six weeks out,” Boyte said. “The problem is everybody needs the same things at the same time.”

Boyte estimated it will take at least three months to get three new manufacturer brand signs. Until then, he has a temporary sign.

And he has the determination to carry on. Boyte will aggressively advertise that he is open for business.

“You’re responsible for 64 to 70 families, and you’ve got to take it seriously and make sure there is work for them,” Boyte said. “We’ve been through some of this before. We understand life’s going to deal a deck of cards to you, and you’ve just got to play the hand you’re dealt.”

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com -- Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jlareauan



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