Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive, said as of Tuesday he expected the potential automotive impact to be "manageable."
"While any flooded vehicle is a disaster, we expect Florence to take relatively few in comparison to other hurricanes," Smoke said in emailed commentary.
He said that vehicle density in Houston last year and the nature of flooding there after Hurricane Harvey created a sizable loss. But vehicle density in the path of Hurricane Florence is about half that of Houston. Population in the coastal area where Florence is expected to hit -- broadly from Savannah, Ga., to Norfolk, Va. -- is less than half that of the Houston area or of Florida, which was hit by Hurricane Irma last year.
The path of Hurricane Florence has about 9 million vehicles in operation, with a density of 162 vehicles per square mile, compared with 326 vehicles per square mile in the Houston area and 314 vehicles per square mile in Florida, Smoke said.
"With the evacuation and other preparations taking place now, the impact should be less than what we saw in Houston last year," Smoke said. "North Carolina could lose 20,000 to 40,000 vehicles if Florence maintains its current path and remains a Category 4 or 5 hurricane given the likely damage from wind and flooding."
Ports and railroads that handle finished vehicles and import containers of auto parts are racing to clear cargo from the storm’s path and preparing to shut down operations.
At the Port of Charleston, longshoremen were loading two car carriers on Wednesday with BMW vehicles -- a Mitsui O.S.K. Line vessel which will set sail for China and a K-Line vessel bound for Southampton, U.K., and Bremerhaven, Germany, spokesperson Erin Dhand said.
Container and auto terminals will be closed Thursday through Saturday, the South Carolina Ports Authority said in a customer advisory. That means truck and rail shipments with imported parts for BMW’s plant in Spartanburg will be suspended, but BMW officials say they do not expect any production disruption.
Terminals at the Port of Virginia are shuttered today.
Class I railroad CSX Transportation is advising customers to expect delays for shipments traveling through the I-95 corridor. The company interchanges automobiles at the Port of Charleston and in Columbia, S.C. Contingency plans include holding trains at intermediate points to keep them from harm’s way and mobilizing repair crews to restore service and infrastructure as rapidly as possible once the weather moderates.
Norfolk Southern, which runs regular intermodal trains between Charleston and Greer, S.C. that haul components to the BMW plant, also said it will suspend operations in certain areas and hold traffic at yards outside the hurricane zone. The railroad is staging ballast trains, equipment, generators and other resources so it can commence recovery operations as soon as it is safe.
Meanwhile, vehicle hauling company United Road has moved big rigs to inland points in its network and suspended deliveries in and out of the hurricane zone, CEO Kathleen McCann told Automotive News.
The transport provider is able to monitor the position of trucks to ensure they are parked in appropriate high ground areas or well out of the anticipated path of the storm, she added. Maintenance shops are also taking precautions, raising equipment and inventories off the ground where possible and securing items that could be moved by wind or water.
“Some customers used us to preemptively move vehicles out of harm’s way and rental car companies are positioning vehicles to move into the affected areas once the storm passes and water subsides,” McCann said in an email. “An ounce of prevention is well worth the pound of cure in these circumstances. Our managers and team have been through this drill numerous times and they take the safety of our people and customers’ vehicles very seriously.”
Eric Kulisch contributed to this report.