Why Flooded-Out Cars Are Likely Total Losses

    When filing auto insurance claims, be patient and prepare for the worst, experts say

    An SUV is seen submerged on the street after the area was inundated with flooding from a Hurricane. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

    Car owners with a vehicle that was swept up by a hurricane face two hard facts. Their car is almost certainly totaled, if it was swamped. And their compensation will depend on their car insurance coverage

    “Flood insurance is covered under the comprehensive portion of a car insurance policy,” says 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.” She points out that about three-quarters of people carry comprehensive coverage.

    That leaves many people without this protection. And there can be a 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, a spokesperson for AAA. “If a person has purchased comprehensive coverage (of course, before the storm), they should be covered for hurricane damage—including flooded cars.” 

    Worters also notes that “with today’s inflation and the tremendous rise in used-vehicle prices, consumers should make sure they have the right amount of auto insurance to protect them.”

    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.

    MORE ON WEATHER EMERGENCIES AND CAR INSURANCE

    On most cars, the intake is at the front, 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,” Ibbotson says. “In addition, there is the chance of computer modules failing from getting wet, and long-term electrical problems down the road.”

    “Car owners should file a claim as soon as possible, particularly with the possibility of mold developing,” Worters says. “Pictures can be helpful to show the extent of the damage. [There could be physical damage from downed 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 take photos of the vehicle, according to Edmonds, but now an insurance company may ask you to join in a Zoom or FaceTime call so that the adjuster can see the damage remotely. This will be especially helpful to speed up the process in the aftermath of a natural disaster, when adjusters are busy and traveling is difficult. 

    In most cases, the cost of fixing 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.

    Are You Covered for the Worst?

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

    “If you did not elect to purchase comprehensive coverage, there would be no insurance on the car for flood damage,” Worters says.

    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.

    Myles Mitchom, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance, says drivers should reach out to their insurance agent before a flood or storm to make sure they have adequate coverage for their vehicles, including comprehensive coverage.

    “Comprehensive is the coverage that kicks into repair or replace a covered vehicle damaged by rising flood waters,” he says.

    How to File a Typical Claim

    • Contact the agent or company that sold you the insurance policy to file a claim. Many insurers have disaster response stations or will soon be setting them up in some of the areas that have been damaged. Check to see whether 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. 
    • Documenting with video or photo is important because each claim presents its own criteria, says April Eaton, a spokesperson for Allstate Insurance. “Such factors may include—but not be 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,” she says.
    • 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 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

    When faced with large-scale flooding, you may be one of thousands of car owners looking to have your car assessed and either repaired or replaced. Worters, with the Insurance Information Institute, says the process isn’t complicated, but dealing with a natural disaster requires extra patience.

    “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. They 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 new technology being used during natural disasters, such as drones, can expedite the process.

    “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,” she says.

    Be Careful When You Inspect Your Car

    Owners should be careful when they’re finally reunited with their vehicle. 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 water is in the engine.
    • Start drying out your vehicle as quickly as possible, and contact a towing service to get it to higher ground. “Quickly drying a car flooded by salt water is especially important, because salt water is very corrosive,” Herndon says.

    State Farm’s Mitchom adds that it’s important to contact your insurance agent or the company to say that your vehicle has been flooded. It’s also important to know your own limitations.

    “If you don’t have the right training and personal protective equipment, it’s safer, in most cases, to leave the cleaning up to professionals,” he says. “Some floodwaters contain raw or untreated sewage and other contaminants that may pose serious health hazards during cleanup. The Centers for Disease Control offers more information on this topic.”


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    Jon Linkov

    I owe my career to two fateful events: my father buying a 1965 Corvette and my purchase of an Audi A4 rather than a Chevy Tahoe. The Corvette jump-started my love of cars, and the Audi led me to automotive journalism, track days, and amateur car repair. In my free time I cycle as much as possible, no matter the season.