Texas' Gulf Coast region and its automobile community are in for a challenging few weeks, months and, most likely, years.
From Corpus Christi to Port Arthur, auto dealers will need to bail water out of their buildings, rebuild damaged showrooms and garages, replace records, fill out government forms, negotiate with insurers and flush out and replenish their vehicle inventories — all while attending to their own flooded homes and their employees' daily hurdles and frayed nerves.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warned that residents of the region must accept "a new and different normal."
In Houston, where overtopped dams compounded a growing flooding crisis across the nation's fourth-largest city, the death toll is climbing, and the life-altering impact hard to fathom. Early last week, the National Automobile Dealers Association estimated that between 30,000 and 35,000 dealership employees in the Houston area may have been affected. And at that time, the rain was still falling.
"It's an unbelievable disaster which could unfold to be the largest disaster in U.S. history, eclipsing Katrina," said Pete DeLongchamps, a senior executive at Group 1 Automotive, which owns 28 dealerships in the Houston area and has its headquarters in town.
But one thing we've learned in decades of reporting on the auto industry, and retailers in particular: The dealer community won't stay down for long (Group 1 had reopened 26 of those stores by Wednesday). And once it's back on its feet, it will assume a critical role in providing relief to others and aiding the recovery.
The same sense of commitment that has sustained Little League teams and marching band booster clubs will inevitably grow to encompass other forms of assistance for those who need it: workers, customers, fellow retailers, first responders and local residents. Dealers and their employees will be the ones distributing food and potable water, collecting donations for shelters, and, yes, helping to get people into new cars and trucks so they can get back to work.
With tens of thousands of flood-damaged cars needing replacement, business will be good for a while at the dealership. More than that, the enduring optimism of auto dealers will be one of Houston's greatest assets as it rebuilds its neighborhoods and the spirit of its people.