JACKSON, Tenn. - Mike Petty awoke in the middle of the night two weekends ago to what sounded like hundreds of people with hammers banging on the roof and sides of his house.
Petty, the local Chevrolet-Cadillac-Chrysler-Jeep dealer, and others in this southwest Tennessee community of about 60,000 saw hailstones the size of baseballs and softballs raining down.
A few miles away, a tornado was ripping through downtown Jackson, the home of a growing cluster of automotive parts suppliers. Petty didn't know yet that, in a matter of minutes, his inventory of 400 new and used vehicles was damaged merchandise.
"Look at the size of this one," Petty said of a hailstone dent in the hood of a black 2003 Cadillac Escalade while walking the lot last week. He placed his hand across the dent to measure the depression. At least 25 other dents pock the SUV's hood, roof and sides.
"And there's a not darn thing you can do with it but hope somebody's willing to buy it with all these dents in it," he said.
Automakers, suppliers and dealerships in the Midwest and South took a hit this month from what weather forecasters are calling the worst tornado season in a generation. About 300 tornadoes have touched down in Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Indiana and Alabama since May 1.
As the nation's farms and woodlands are taken over by factories, shopping centers and housing developments, the odds are rising that violent weather will damage cars and trucks somewhere.
On May 8, a tornado tore off the side of General Motors' Oklahoma City assembly plant and destroyed a parking lot full of employee vehicles.
In the smaller town of Jackson, the tornado missed the city's dealerships but caused damage at a number of parts factories in the surrounding area.
The accompanying hailstorm was as damaging as the high winds. Observers say chunks of ice as big as softballs crashed to the ground for 15 minutes. At Mathews Auto Mall, a Buick-Pontiac-GMC-Dodge-Hyundai complex down the highway from Petty's store, hail damaged 800 vehicles, smashing windows, cracking paint and denting hoods. Saturn of Jackson had between 80 and 100 of its cars declared a total loss by the insurance company.