Carolina dealers brace for Hurricane Florence, close early

Traffic on Interstate 26 in South Carolilna on Tuesday was moved one way to help with the evacuation. Photo credit: Reuters

Dealerships in the Carolinas and beyond spent Tuesday securing inventory and sending employees home as they prepared to close in the face of Hurricane Florence's path toward the mid-Atlantic region.

At 11 a.m., the National Hurricane Center projected the Category 4 storm to take direct aim at North Carolina, with the possibility of damaging winds and heavy rain spanning from northern Florida up to New Jersey. With landfall expected Thursday, the storm's strength and direction still could change, but the governors of North and South Carolina nonetheless declared states of emergency. More than 1.5 million residents are being evacuated, and dealers are planning accordingly.

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"We're telling them, first and foremost, make sure your employees stay safe," said North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association President Robert Glaser. "Second, from a facility point of view, is just be smart."

That means taking computers off the floor in flood-prone areas and putting new-vehicle inventory in secured locations, he said.

At Team Auto Group in North Carolina, preparations began three days ago when the group reached out to peers in Florida, including some Germain dealerships in Naples, which got hit by Hurricane Irma last year, in order "to get out in front of this," said Matt Raymond, Team Auto's director of business development.

Vehicles at the group's Team Chevrolet store in Swansboro have been moved to higher ground or put indoors. After 2 p.m. Tuesday, that store will shut down until further notice. For locations away from the coast, "The company is playing it by ear," Raymond said. "Depending on the winds and the speed [of the storm], we may be able to squeak out the whole week."

Sandbags around buildings

Tips from the Germain stores led to placing sandbags around dealership buildings and unplugging, wrapping up and storing all electronics in a central location.

Bob King Buick-GMC in Wilmington, N.C., also prepared to close its doors. "We have pretty much shut down everything as of 12 o'clock," said John Jackson, the store's service manager.

The store was still taking service appointments Tuesday morning, doing emergency repairs and last-minute oil changes. On Tuesday afternoon, it planned to move up to 75 vehicles on vulnerable parts of the lot to areas less prone to flooding.

"We are going to be closed Wednesday, probably through the end of the week, but right now, we're just playing it by ear," Jackson said, adding, "We're trying to get everyone out of here by 2 o'clock today."

Similar measures are being taken at Riverside Automotive Group's Riverside Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram store in James City, N.C., about 20 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

With vehicles secured, the dealership has been wrapping its computers in trash bags "and trying to do our best that we can to keep everything out of the water -- because even when it just rains hard here, we get flooding in the front of the store," said Jacob Amos, the group's general manager.

"We've already started letting employees leave as early as yesterday to start evacuating," Amos said. "Everyone is leaving town where we're at."

Wait-and-see approach

Tommy Baker, owner of Baker Motor Co., said his employees were coming in Tuesday on a voluntary basis. His Charleston, S.C.-area stores are taking a wait-and-see approach to the storm.

"We're open today and probably tomorrow, but we'll make that decision probably later this afternoon," Baker said. "With the storm hitting later Thursday, I think we're OK."

That's not the case for Baker's stores in Wilmington, N.C., where locations are still open Tuesday but will be closed Wednesday, he said.

Baker said he's confident his group is fully prepared: "We've done this many times."

The North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association is helping its members with preparations by sending a list of 20 tips to its members, advising them on everything from testing employee communications systems and shutting down gas pumps to being certain insurance policies are in place.

"The biggest thing is take care of your family and take care of your employees," the association's Glaser said. "Everything else is insured. We can fix everything else."

The association has activated an emergency-relief fund and has been in contact with the National Automobile Dealers Association about using a similar fund there. 

"What we'll be doing after the storm has come and gone is, we'll be assessing if any stores' employees need extra help," Glaser said. "We'll be able to fund some of them."

Hurricane knowledge

With about a dozen stores potentially affected by the current trajectory of the storm, Sonic Automotive Inc. is implementing some of the knowledge it gained when Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc in Texas last year.

"Unfortunately -- but fortunately -- we had a very big education on hurricanes last year in Houston, and so we're very prepared for dealing with something like this as best as anyone can," said Jeff Dyke, Sonic executive vice president of operations.

The company has been hosting two daily conference calls with the affected stores and meteorological and emergency management experts to keep abreast of the situation on the ground. It has mapped out potential flood zones and has been moving store inventory.

"We're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," Dyke said.

Anisa Jibrell contributed to this report.

You can reach David Muller at dmuller@crain.com

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