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Suddenly, roads became rivers

The shock of Friday's flooding hasn't worn off for motorists who were caught off guard and who are now dealing with repairs.

Published February 9, 2006

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Terry Gorham, right, a master technician at Yoho's Collision Center in Pinellas Park, pours water out of an intake manifold Wednesday while Lynn Paulus, left, talks with her insurance adjuster about her 1982 Mercedes, which was flooded during last Friday's downpour.
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Vanessa Stroud, 19, of Plant City waits inside her car while stranded on the exit ramp from Interstate 275 onto West Shore Boulevard in Tampa on Friday.

ST. PETERSBURG - Lynn Paulus likes to think she never would have tried to drive through 4 feet of water in her mint black 1982 classic Mercedes if not for the van she was following.

The van made it. Her 2-door coupe did not.

Within moments, the water was to her knees. She got the window down as the water reached her chest.

By the time Paulus, 60, floated out of her car and to the side of the road Friday, the intersection at 66th Street and 82nd Avenue was littered with about 40 stalled cars. She was four blocks from home.

"It's devastating," said Paulus, who learned from an adjuster Wednesday that her car is probably totaled. "I've put $20,000 into this car. It's been my pet project all this time. I don't know how to explain it, but you shouldn't be attached to a vehicle."

While Friday's sudden storm, which dumped up to 11 inches on the Tampa Bay area, is merely an annoying memory for most people, hundreds of others are still dealing with the aftermath.

Dozens upon dozens of cars were totaled. Many others are getting new engines or electrical systems or carpet. There is no official tally of how many cars were damaged, but repair shops reported juggling multiple flood-damaged cars and their owners.

"I towed 126 cars that day free of charge for the city of Pinellas Park to get the roadways clear," said Robert Yoho, 45, the owner of Yoho's Collision Center in Pinellas Park. "About 40 percent had motor damage. There was no need for all those people to be driving Friday."

AAA Auto Club South reported 904 more calls from stranded motorists than usual in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Some people were told they would have to wait three to five hours.

At one point, a Pinellas Park wrecker service had a backlog of 80 people waiting to be towed. Hillsborough had pockets of up to 30 cars stranded in water.

"We had no warning this was going to happen this badly," said Tony Milnthorpe, director of call center operations for AAA Auto Club South. "Normally, with a hurricane coming, you've got preparation time."

Jim Hernan, owner of J&J Auto Body, said he towed at least 15 cars to his Pinellas Park shop on Friday. Based on conversations with other tow operators in mid Pinellas, he figures 1,000 to 1,300 cars were pulled from high water.

"At least 90 percent of the cars I brought in will be totaled," Hernan said. "The biggest problem is the electronics. They don't like water, and insurance companies are afraid to have them repaired because if problems develop a few months later, who's to say if it's the new part or water damage?"

Driving through deep water creates an extreme risk to vehicle engines, he said, because the air intakes at the bottom of the engine suck in water. It is not advisable to drive through water that reaches above a car's rocker panels, or the bottom of the car, experts said.

"Once motors and transmissions fill up with water, they're done," Hernan said.

A lot of damaged vehicles were not towed, Hernan said.

"I got maybe 40 calls total, but then people would call back and cancel the tow request because neighbors had helped them push their cars into their driveways," he said. "They weren't towed, but they were still damaged."

At Larsen's Towing Service in the Drew Park neighborhood of Tampa, tow truck drivers hauled about 200 cars - everything from $2,000 junkers to $120,000 Mercedes - from ditches and flooded streets in Hyde Park, Westshore, and elsewhere, said dispatcher Michael Collins.

"People automatically think their cars turn into kayaks," he said. "But if it weren't for all these people, I wouldn't have a job."

Rob Brenneke, service director for Jerry Ulm Dodge in Tampa, said about a half-dozen car owners were waiting for adjusters to look at their cars. Some cars will need their engines replaced at a cost of $4,000 to $6,000.

"Rarely can it be repaired," he said. "If it starts rattling, it's too late."

But insurance companies are acting quickly to settle claims, service managers said.

"One of my customers settled a $23,000 claim with Geico right here in my office," Hernan said. "He left happy."

For the most part, insurance companies said Friday's storm was not a major problem.

"I want to be very careful I don't minimize the event because if it's your car or your home, it's not a small matter," said State Farm spokesman Chris Neal. "But our trigger for catastrophes is 500 claims, and we haven't seen anything near that in either homes or autos. When the event is this small, our agents can handle it pretty quickly."

Most claims were from Pinellas, Neal said, though there also were claims from Hillsborough and even Polk counties.

Charlie Gillespie, spokesman for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., characterized claims from the storm as "minimal."

"I can't give you numbers, but it didn't make much of a ripple with us at all," Gillespie said.

At Big Tires & More on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park, owner Mike Short said 11 cars had come in with water damage to the engines. It took a while for Short to get to his clients, however, because his shop and showroom flooded.

"We had just bought all new equipment, and it was under water Friday," Short said. "Thankfully, we dried it off and it all survived, except for the computer system and the credit card swipe. The showroom still isn't open."

As of Tuesday, Short said, his crews had been able to repair two cars and get them back on the road. Other repairs were under way.

Amy Higel, 28, of Pinellas Park, was still waiting to hear whether she had zapped the electrical system of her 2005 Chevrolet Equinox SUV. She could see her home as she plowed through an intersection full of water in torrential rain last Friday with her 7-week-old and her 18-month-old in the car.

"I drove right into it," she said. "I was panicked because I had the kids in the car, and I thought I could make it. And the tow truck driver told me I was never going to make it."

Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report.


Do not start it until it has been inspected and cleaned. Call your insurance company immediately.

A technician should examine the engine, transmission, steering system, axles, brakes and fuel system. They should drain contaminated systems and clean them with water or solvent.

Source: AAA


Before you buy:

Check for stains, rust, mold, mildew, dirt and sand under carpets. Sniff for mildew.

Look for dried mud under the dashboard.

Check a database of flood-damaged vehicles.

Sources: National Automobile Dealers Association, National Insurance Crime Bureau

[Last modified February 9, 2006, 01:31:52]

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