Auto owners whose vehicles were swept up by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are facing two hard facts right now: Their car is almost certainly totaled, if it was swamped, and they'll get no money back if they don't have comprehensive insurance, experts say.

“All we know now is that there are thousands of submerged vehicles,” says Mark Hanna, spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas. “Many owners are covered with comprehensive insurance, but there are many without it.”

In Texas, he says, 15 percent of motorists have no car insurance, and of those who do, 75 percent have comprehensive insurance. That leaves a lot of car owners without any protection.

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.

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.

More on Weather Emergencies

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, the percentage of drivers with comprehensive coverage is a little higher than in Texas. “Four out of five drivers have it,” says Lynne McChristian, a representative with the Insurance Information Institute. “But if you did not elect to purchase comprehensive coverage, there would be no insurance on the car for flood damage.”

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 Houston 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, says Hanna, the spokesman for the Texas Insurance Council. 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.”

McChristian 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,” McChristian 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,” McChristian 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.

McChristian 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.

If You Have a Complaint With Your Insurance Company

Contact the Texas Attorney General’s office. Spokeswoman Kayleigh Lavvorn says those affected by Harvey can tap several resources there. “To file a complaint with our office, consumers can email consumeremergency@oag.texas.gov, or call 800-621-0508 or 512-475-4413.” Lovvorn also says information to help car owners avoid “frauds and scams, along with red flags” can be sourced online.

Consumers can also turn to the Texas Department of Insurance Consumer Protection Help Line at 800-252-3439 to help resolve insurance complaints.