St. Louis-area auto shops say most cars with flood damage cannot be fixed | Local Business

Lyle Ellerbee

FLORISSANT — A blue Toyota Yaris landed at Danmark Tire & Auto this week. The driver had been on a bridge, trying to cross Coldwater Creek, when Tuesday’s rising water stopped its progress. A line on the car showed the water had reached about 4 feet up the side.

The shop owner, Richard Cox, looked at the car and shook his head. This one was totaled.

“I’ve always had bad experiences with cars that have been in a flood. All the wiring’s going to rust. Everything is going to rust in the car,” he said.

The case of the Yaris was especially sad, because the driver may also have been living in the car — the car was full of clothing and other items. Mud covered the floor, and the upholstery was still wet on Wednesday.

Hundreds of cars were swamped in the flash floods that hit the St. Louis area after a record-breaking rainfall Tuesday, and again after an intense shower on Thursday. They were some of the most poignant images from the week — water up to the windows, or higher. But after the water recedes, what then?

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A flood does not necessarily mean an automatic trip to the junkyard, said area auto repair shop owners. But cars and large amounts of water do not mix.

A handful of flooded vehicles were brought into Sparks Tire & Auto in St. Charles. The flooding was so severe that they were all totaled, including a medium-duty truck that had water almost up to the roof, said Greg Damon, company manager and host of the “KMOX Auto Show.”

Damon said that most vehicles will be free from damage only if water does not reach more than about halfway up the tire.

“When it gets a little higher than that, you’re going to start getting water into your passenger compartment. Most of the time, that can be cleaned and restored,” he said.

“When you get higher than that, it starts destroying electronics — underneath the dash, underneath the seats, in the heating and air conditioning, the computer, any number of things.”

At that point, he said, repairing the vehicle becomes costly. And if water gets into the engine or the fuel system, the engine will have to be rebuilt. In most cases, that would cost more than the car is worth.

Sometimes, people try to sell cars that have been flooded to unsuspecting customers. Danmark’s Cox said a good way to tell is if the carpet in the trunk shows a water line.

At Tactical Towing & Recovery in Belleville, Tuesday was an exhausting day. Calls came in so fast all day long that owner Brian Seiber said he could not make an outbound call.

“I’ve been towing for 18 years. I’ve never seen it that bad. The closest thing to this that I’ve ever seen is when we’ve had a really bad snow,” said Seiber, who estimated his crews went on 35 calls from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. — and they had to turn down business because they did not have enough trucks and drivers.

After the tow drivers pulled cars out of the water, or at the repair shop after they had been towed there, the owners would try to start the car.

“As soon as it sputters and water comes out of the exhaust pipe, we say, ‘It’s time to call your insurance company. It’s totaled,’” Seiber said.

But Seiber said there are ways to improve your chances that your car will not be ruined if it goes into the water. If the driver turns off the engine before the water gets too high, then it has a chance of surviving the situation.

He said that about one out of every three or four cars that are turned off in floods can later start up and run.

But even if the vehicle can be driven, Sparks Tire & Auto’s Damon cautioned, that does not mean it will be unaffected by the water. Mold may grow, he said, and the wiring and the sensors underneath the dashboard may become corroded.

“It could be a few weeks, it could be a year” before the problems begin, he said.

Anyone whose car has been in water should have it checked out by a professional before driving it, he said.

Cox had better advice: “Don’t drive in any kind of water. You don’t know how fast it could rise.”

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