Most car dealers in Florida are thankful despite scattered power outages, flooded highways, dinged inventory and facility damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. They know it could have been much worse.
“When the storm came up the center of the state, that was a blessing,” said Ted Smith, president of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association in Tallahassee. “It did not do as much damage as it could have.”
Smith sent an email to his nearly 450 members on Saturday asking them for reports of damage after Irma. Only about 5 percent have responded, but their news is encouraging.
“I have not yet heard of a single store that’s been destroyed,” said Smith. “I have not had reports from the Keys yet — that’s were the largest problems are — but for the rest, it’s mostly power outages with minimal damage.”
Florida dealerships in areas where power has been restored opened Tuesday mostly to prepare for business later in the week, Smith said. Scattered power outages remain “almost everywhere” in the state, he added.
Dealer Bernie Moreno had closed his Infiniti of Coral Gables store, about 5 miles south of Miami, on Wednesday, Sept. 6. The power came on and he reopened Tuesday, but he had no customers.
“There’s no business right now,” said Moreno. “There’s zero.”
That’s partly because some 6 million people evacuated the area, he said. He also noted, “You just went through a hurricane and you’re getting your house in order. You’re not thinking, ‘Let’s go get my oil changed or buy a new car.’ It’s going to be at least until next week until we see that happen.”
Moreno’s luxury store opened in February in an office building that also houses Bacardi USA headquarters. He used Barcardi’s five-story employee parking garage to shelter some 350 new and used vehicles from damage. His dealership survived unscathed.
“We’re in a 17-store office building so we don’t have the same issue as a dealer with a detached building and an open parking lot does,” Moreno said.
It was a different story in Jacksonville. There, the St. Johns River flooded and about 150,000 people remain without power, said Tom O’Steen, co-owner of O’Steen Automotive Group in Jacksonville. He also is vice president of the Jacksonville Auto Dealers Association and chairman of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association.
“Many homes had two to three feet of water in them,” O’Steen said. “We had water in downtown Jacksonville with high winds. I had my shingles torn off.”
But the area’s 75 car dealerships are on high ground and escaped flooding and serious damage, he said.
“I am sitting in my dealership now and operating in as normal a fashion as possible,” he said. “It looks like business as normal, just a little debris, but no water issues.”
O’Steen said he heard of one store with “some broken glass” in the showroom.
Still, the auto ports of Jacksonville and Brunswick, Ga., remained closed Tuesday. The Port of Charleston, S.C., a major export gateway for BMW vehicles produced in South Carolina, is open for business, the port authority said in a bulletin.
The Florida East Coast Railway said it was assessing damage to terminals and track, with possible interchange of traffic to Class I railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern in Jacksonville potentially resuming Tuesday.
But Norfolk Southern said it is removing trees from tracks and assessing track conditions. Routes are being restored when it is safe and customers should expect delays of 48 to 72 hours moving shipments through to all storm areas, it said.
About 50 miles northwest of Orlando, dealer George Nahas, who owns a Chevrolet store in Wildwood, opened Tuesday but is “not doing much business,” he said.
Many of Nahas’ employees have no power and do not expect it for “at least three weeks.”
George Nahas Chevrolet, across the road from The Villages, a giant retirement community, escaped the wrath of Irma.
“We didn’t lose one car,” said Nahas. “And we are going to need all of them because there’s going to be a shortage,” referring to cars damaged by Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area that will need to be replaced.
Meanwhile, Florida’s panhandle had higher than usual wind and rain but suffered little hurricane damage. That allowed dealer Allen Turner to sell 13 cars on Monday. Turner sells Chevrolet, Hyundai and used vehicles at his three rooftops. He sold six new and seven used vehicles.
He said the decision to open came after a Sunday meeting with his managers. Most other dealers in the Crestview and Pensacola area, where Turner’s stores are, were closed. But Turner’s team assessed the forecast and decided the weather would not be “much worse than what it would be on a normal [summer] day with typical thunderstorms.”
Turner said opening the store would be good for sales, allow the service technicians to whittle down a backlog of repair work and give his hourly workers more pay, he said.
He, like many Florida dealers, is thankful.
“The good Lord blessed us,” Turner said. “It was bad in certain places. It was just not nearly [as bad] as it was projected to be when it ripped apart those Caribbean islands.”
Eric Kulisch contributed to this report.
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