The first drop of rain from Hurricane Frances hadn't yet fallen on Florida Friday morning, but already the huge storm has put a damper on September sales for the entire industry.
As Hurricane Frances spun closer to Florida's east coast Friday, hundreds of automobile dealers in the hurricane watch area were closed. Many planned on staying closed at least through Monday -- maybe longer if their stores are severely damaged and if utilities are out for an extended period of time.
Florida is the nation's second largest market for new cars behind California. More than 13 million vehicles are registered in the state.
According to the Florida Automobile Dealers Association, there are between 900 and 1,000 new-car dealerships in Florida, many of which have their best sales days Thursday through Sunday.
The Orlando Sentinel reported Friday that 86 percent of Florida's population is in the path of the storm. Frances' cloud cover is about the size of Texas.
Because Frances is such a big storm, it will likely hurt September sales more so than Hurricane Charley affected August sales, said George Pipas, Ford Motor Co.'s manager of sales analysis reporting.
"Dealerships were basically not open Thursday and Friday. Most dealers were putting plywood over windows. It's a big storm that is going to cover the entire peninsula. There were parts of Florida basically untouched by Hurricane Charley," said Pipas.
"We've really been out of business the last two days," said Dennis Hadd, general manager of McNamara Pontiac-Isuzu in Orlando. "People took Charley lightly and then they saw the damage. They are taking this one seriously," he said.
Even after Frances passes over Florida it will take a while for sales to recover. "For the most part, the severity of the storm determines how quickly people have an interest in thinking about cars," Pipas said. Most people, Pipas added, are going to be concerned with cleaning up, securing their houses and taking care of their families before they think about fixing damaged vehicles or buying new ones.
If Frances follows its projected path it will come ashore around near Vero Beach, about 40 miles south of Cape Canaveral, sometime Saturday afternoon. Hurricane forecasters believe Frances will follow northwest course cutting through northern central Florida and exiting on the west coast sometime Sunday.
The storm weakened overnight and was downgraded to a category three hurricane. Winds were clocked early Friday at about 120 mph, down from 145 mph Thursday. But forecasters believe the storm could regain strength before it comes ashore sometime Saturday afternoon.
"This one is gonna hit us. And it's gonna hit us hard," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told The Orlando Sentinel.
Hurricane Charley is blamed for 27 deaths and somewhere between $6 billion and $11 billion in property damage. Frances is expected to dump between 10 and 15 inches of rain on Florida.
An estimated 7,000 new and used vehicles at Florida dealerships are believed to have been damaged during Charley. One dealership, Palm Toyota in Punta Gorda, lost about 600 vehicles. Thousands more privately-owned vehicles also were damaged or totaled.
At Roger Dean Chevrolet in West Palm Beach, the dealership borrowed garage space from some of its customers, and employees moved Corvettes and other expensive vehicles indoors Thursday, said Scott Mangiapani, new vehicle sales manager.
He said employees disconnected computers, wrapped them in plastic bags and moved them into storage. "We are going to be ready," he said. Mangiapani said the dealership's employees were sent home around noon Thursday after storm shutters were put in place to protect the store's plate glass windows.
The Florida Automobile Dealers Association sent all of Florida's new car dealers a list of precautions they could take to lessen the damage and that might help them quickly reopen after the storm. The associate did not have an estimate of the number of dealers who were closed. Spokeswoman Amy Keyes said some dealers were still closed because of Hurricane Charley.
Frances could deliver a second blow to some of the same dealers who were pounded by Charley. That storm slammed into the west side of the state about 100 miles south of Tampa and then cut a path through central Florida before exiting near Daytona Beach. If Frances follows its projected path it will roll through central Florida from the opposite direction.
Dealers in the Orlando area were especially hard hit.
"This one is going to make Charley look like a rain shower," said McNamara's Hadd. The dealership had portions of its roof blown off in the earlier storm and repairmen were working on the building Thursday as employees were preparing to close early.
Hadd said the dealership can't deliver new cars because insurance companies won't issue binders during hurricane watches.
McNamara plans to close through Sunday and, if the store is not badly damaged, try to reopen Monday.
"The guys who are fixing the roof are here right now," Hadd said early Thursday. "They might get a chance to do it twice."