DETROIT -- As the rain fell the afternoon of Aug. 11, Pat Presutti, new-car sales manager at Jim Riehl’s Friendly Chrysler Jeep in Warren, Mich., sent a porter out to check the water level in the back lot where nearly 100 cars were parked.
It was only about a half inch deep.
But after “all hell broke loose,” during the early evening commute, it only took 15 minutes for the pooling rainwater to reach the rocker panel below the vehicle doors.
“Once it gets over that, your carpet is soaked and it goes into the bottom of the motor,” Presutti said.
By 8 p.m., dumpsters were floating around in the car lot.
Some 4-5 inches of rain inundated the Detroit area in just a few hours -- stranding motorists, closing highways, and creating nightmares for auto dealers as well as the Detroit 3 automakers.
Not far from Riehl in Warren, the General Motors Tech Center was still pumping water out of basements on Friday.
Not a prank
And that evening at Riehl, as the water reached the carpet below the vehicle seats where electronic control modules are housed, trunks began to open, windows began to go up and down and airbags deployed, as if a mean spirit were playing pranks.
But it was no prank. Nothing could be done to save the new vehicles.
“By the time you pull 80 keys and try to move 80 cars, you’re not going to make it,” Presutti said.
On Tuesday morning, mud lines on windshields told the story of the flood’s rise and fall, as did vehicle interiors with mud-encrusted steering wheels and dashboards.
“I’ve never been in a flood situation,” Presutti said. “We’ve had theft and damage, but never a flood situation.”
As a general policy, dealerships carry insurance on their inventory, and so does Jim Riehl’s Friendly Chrysler Jeep, he said.
Of 85 new vehicles submerged in the dealership’s parking lot, Presutti expects 83 will be a total loss resulting in an insurance claim of about $2.5 million.
But the dealership will only break even with the claim, he said. When the flood waters receded, they took with them any chance of making a profit on the vehicles and dampened sales for the near term.
“What you’re going to sell the most of for August and September is 2014 (models); customers want the deal,” he said.
The majority of the new vehicles lost on the lot were 2014 models.
Seeking higher ground
A couple of miles south, Galeana’s Van Dyke Dodge also watched as the water rose to about 3 feet on the heavily traveled Van Dyke Avenue, bringing it about halfway up the dealership lot.
Fortunately, Galeana’s is on higher ground, and employees were able to move cars from the front end of the dealership farther back so they were not affected, sales manager John Caldwell said.
But he cringed, he said, every time a truck pushed through the flood waters on VanDyke, creating a tidal wave that pushed farther into the lot.
The dealership stayed open until 1 a.m. when the last trapped customer left. And Caldwell said he let many of the salespeople who’d stayed drive a new truck home so they could navigate their way with higher clearance from the ground.
As of late last week, 35 vehicles had been towed or brought in to be assessed for water damage. Caldwell believes that number will at least double, given that local impound yards are still crowded with cars salvaged as the water receded.
“Once the water hits the computers, electrical systems and interior, I don’t think the insurance company is looking at them,” he said. “I believe that most of these cars are going to end up being totaled.”
A repair estimated to cost $2,000 can morph into a $10,000 or $15,000 repair very quickly once the car has been taken apart, Caldwell said.
Rather than run the risk of losing the majority of a vehicle’s value, insurance companies can sell a $20,000 car, for example, for half that amount at an auction as a salvage vehicle “and they know exactly what they’re dealing with in terms of a loss,” he said.