An SUV covered in floodwater

Auto owners whose vehicles were swept up by Hurricane Laura are facing two hard facts right now: Their car is almost certainly totaled, if it was swamped. How they will be compensated depends on their car insurance coverage

"Flood insurance is covered under the comprehensive portion of a car insurance policy," explains Loretta L. Worters, vice president at the Insurance Information Institute. "Comprehensive coverage is generally optional, although your lender may require it if you have an auto loan. Seventy-eight percent of people carry comprehensive coverage"

That leaves many people without this protection. And there can be good reason for not adding this to your policy. 

"In deciding whether or not to purchase comprehensive coverage, consider the market value of your car, as the coverage cost may outweigh the benefits," says Ellen Edmonds, spokesperson for AAA. She says, "If a person has purchased comprehensive coverage (of course, before the storm), they should be covered for hurricane damage—including flooded cars." 

Be Prepared for Your Car to Be Totaled

You may have a strong emotional connection to your car, but if it has been in a flood, it might be too expensive to repair. That's because “when water enters your engine’s air intake, it can lead to all sorts of problems,” says John Ibbotson, chief mechanic for Consumer Reports.

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On most cars, the intake is at the front of the car, and it brings in fresh air to the engine as you drive.

“The water can enter this intake and fill your engine cylinders, which can stall the motor or leave the motor unable to turn over and start. In addition, there is the chance of computer modules failing from getting wet and long-term electrical problems down the road,” he says.

"Car owners should file a claim as soon as possible, particularly with the possibility of mold developing," says Worters. "Pictures can be helpful to show the extent of the damage (there could be physical damage from down tree lines as well as flooding). Also a lot of the damage can be electrical that won’t show up in a photo or video."

Traditionally, an insurance adjuster would visit the vehicle to take photos, according to Edmonds, but she says that many claims are being adjusted virtually, so the insurance company may ask the insured to join in a Zoom or FaceTime call so the adjuster can see the damage remotely. This would be especially helpful to speed up the process in the aftermath of a natural disaster, when adjusters are busy and travel is difficult. 

In most cases, the cost of fixing the damaged engines, electrical, and computer parts, and interiors (for mold, moisture, or corrosion), not to mention the possible long-term corrosion and electrical damage, is too high to warrant repairs, Ibbotson says.

Rachael Rissinger, spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance, says many states have guidelines for when a vehicle must be considered a total loss. That assessment is generally a calculation of the car's value and the expected cost of repair.

“If we determine the vehicle is a total loss . . . then we will work with the owner to essentially complete the purchase of their property by issuing payment, minus the deductible, in exchange for the vehicle and vehicle title,” she says.

Are You Covered for the Worst?

Nationally, four out of five drivers have comprehensive coverage, according to Worters. “But if you did not elect to purchase comprehensive coverage, there would be no insurance on the car for flood damage,” Worters says.

Consumer Reports recommends that all car owners seriously consider having comprehensive coverage, even if their car is older.

Few owners expect their car will ever be stolen, just as many of the owners affected in the Gulf region didn't expect their area to flood. Without comprehensive coverage, an owner in either situation is left without compensation for his or her loss.

How to File a Typical Claim

  • Contact the agent or company who sold you the insurance policy to file a claim. Many insurers have already or soon will be setting up disaster response stations in some of the damaged areas, he noted. Check to see if your company has a response team near you.
  • Document your property damage with photos and video as soon as possible, if you can do it safely, and provide this information to your insurance adjuster, Hanna says. 
  • Documenting with video or photo is important because each claim presents its own unique criteria, says Justin Herndon, a spokesperson for Allstate Insurance. “Such factors may include, but not limited to, the extent of damage, type of damage, age of a vehicle, make/model of a vehicle and mileage driven to date on the vehicle in question.”
  • Consumer Reports urges owners to get a claim number and the name and phone number of the adjuster when filing a report. Find out when you can expect to be contacted. Ask for a payout estimate, and ask how you can limit your out-of-pocket expenses. If you’ll need to rent a car, ask for details about reimbursement before you do so.

Set Your Expectations

You are one of thousands of car owners looking to have your car assessed, and either repaired or replaced. That takes time, says Rissinger, the State Farm spokesperson. She adds that the process “may take a couple of days to a couple of weeks, depending on the individual claims circumstance.”

Worters with the Insurance Information Institute says the process is not complicated, but a natural disaster requires extra patience.

“Claims are being paid now. If a vehicle was submerged, it doesn’t take an insurance company very long to inspect it and declare it is salvageable or a total loss,” she says.

If You've Been Displaced

“All you need to do is make a phone call to your insurance agent or company,” Worters says. “The companies all have Claims Departments to help people with storm recovery, and they can walk you through the process. The insurer can access your policy information.”

If You Don't Know Where Your Car Is

For starters, keep yourself safe and don’t risk making an automobile claim something much more serious. “You should not take any actions that would put you in danger,” Worters says. “Tell your insurer the last location of the vehicle and ask for their recommended next steps. In many situations with flooded cars, the insurer will send a tow truck to retrieve it as a submerged vehicle that may not start and could be dangerous to drive, particularly if water got into the electrical components.”

If you can't find your car, check with the police and any local agencies assisting with cleaning up after a flood. Those groups may have had flood-damaged vehicles towed to an impound lot or storage facility. They should be able to inform you where all of the towed vehicles are being stored.

Worters points out that for this disaster, new technology, such as drones, can expedite the process.

“This is the first natural disaster where we will see the use of drones in the claims process," she says. "If you can’t get to your vehicle, ask your insurer if they are using drones and perhaps they will be able to take an aerial picture of its location as initial documentation of the loss.”

Be Careful When You Inspect Your Car

Allstate’s Herndon urges owners to be careful when they are finally reunited with their vehicles. When you inspect your flood-damaged vehicle, Herndon suggests you:

  • Survey the car’s potential damage and note how high the water rose in your car. 
  • Don't try to start your car when you get back to it. This will cause more damage if is water is in the engine.
  • Start drying out your vehicle as quickly as possible, and contact a towing service to get it back to higher ground. “Quickly drying a car flooded by salt water is especially important, because salt water is very corrosive,” Herndon says.