How to Best Repair Your Car After a Natural Disaster

flooded car by rain

Natural disasters have occurred in epic forms during the past year. Large-scale floods, wildfires and volcanic eruptions have inflicted heavy property damage worldwide. Thousands of vehicles are among the casualties, but with extra attention from owners many can survive and avoid being designated a salvaged vehicle.

The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles states a generally held definition of a salvaged vehicle as having “damage to or is missing a major component part to the extent that the cost of repairs exceeds the actual cash value of the motor vehicle immediately before damage.”

Vehicles with less exposure to damaging forces of nature, which don’t require replacement of major components, can be made road ready by educated owners.  Measures can be taken to reverse the effects of water, smoke/ash/soot and volcanic ashfall to avoid insurance hassle and allow the continued use of a valued automobile. Replacing a vehicle via an insurance claim that has low mileage, been customized or has sentimental value is difficult.

Odds are against flooded vehicle survival

The most widespread damage to vehicles has been by flooding, which occurred in historical proportions when Hurricane Harvey hit Southeast Texas in August 2017. This storm proved odds are slim that owners can keep vehicles after making flood-insurance claims.

“There were around 250,000 vehicles that were flooded in Southeast Texas and probably 90 percent of those were totaled,” says Mark Hanna, spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas. “There’s a certain point where there’s water is in the electrical system, and that normally does it.”

Generally speaking, a car standing in, not driven through, high fresh water below the door sill has a good chance of being driven without problems. Saltwater is more corrosive and greatly lessens a vehicle’s survivability.

Damage from fresh water rising slightly higher and covering the floorboard can be addressed if it doesn’t come into contact with under-seat electronic components – commonly those controlling airbags and power seats.

There are widely held mechanic-recommended procedures to follow when a vehicle is subjected to high water. A critical warning is not starting the engine because water could have entered the air intake. This would likely ruin the engine via “hydrolocking,” which occurs when water enters the combustion chamber and causes damage to a piston or connecting rod.

Water can be detected by first checking the oil to see if it’s on the dipstick. Next, remove the air cleaner and look for water on the air cleaner or on the bottom of its housing. If water is detected, remove spark plugs and turn the engine over by hand to purge it from the cylinders through the spark-plug holes. Follow by blowing compressed air into the spark-plug holes. In all cases, changing oil, and replacing oil and air filters is wise.

Checking transmission, brake and power-steering fluids also is recommended, and even if no evidence of water is found, a safe practice is to drain and refill all fluids. In severe situations, draining and refilling the gas tank is in order.

The vehicle’s interior needs to be inspected as quickly as possible to avoid mold, mildew and odor. Pull back the carpet (it may require removing door sills) and padding to check for dampness.  If water has pooled on the floor, undo the floor plug and drain the water.

A simple wet vacuuming of the carpet isn’t enough. Generally, lifting the carpet and drying underneath with a hair dryer and fans will solve the problem, but the process may take days. In more severe situations, it may be necessary to remove the carpet, padding and seats.

If possible, take advantage of a sunny day and park the vehicle outside to clean the interior. Leave doors and windows open, and place seats, carpet and padding outside. Dry the interior with a hair dryer and nature’s help.

Wildfires deliver smoke, ash, soot damage

Resurrecting interiors damaged by smoke/ash/soot from wildfires also is an undertaking requiring hard work and patience. Vehicles that escaped a fire can receive considerable damage from smoke, ash and soot, which can contain caustic materials that can harm exteriors and interiors. The Federal Emergency Management Agency warns that aerial fire retardants or firefighting foam residue also may have settled on the vehicle.

FEMA recommends using a mild detergent and brushes to scrub and dilute the dried residue, and then flush it from the exterior with clean water. A follow-up with pressure washing may be beneficial, but isn’t a substitute for scrubbing to remove residue.

Wearing gloves such as household dish washing gloves, long-sleeved shirt and long pants during clean-up to avoid skin contact is recommended by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. A disposable mask with a rating of N-95 or better can be worn to avoid breathing in ash and other airborne particles.

Find a well-ventilated environment to do the work. Roll down windows and open doors to let the interior breathe. Remove floor mats, which can be cleaned separately, and thoroughly vacuum the carpet and upholstery. The DPH warns that only certain vacuums should be used.

“Shop vacuums and regular household vacuum cleaners are not recommended to clean up ash,” states the DPH.  “These vacuums do not filter out small particles, but instead blow such particles into the air where they can be breathed. However, HEPA-filter vacuums can filter out small particles and can be used.”

Follow by steam cleaning the upholstery. An alternative to steam cleaning is cleaning the interior with a carpet and upholstery shampoo containing an odor eliminator. Hard surfaces such as the steering wheel and parts of the instrument panel can be cleaned with a half-and-half white vinegar and water solution. After a thorough cleaning the interior must be deodorized.

“We recommend sprinkling Arm & Hammer Baking Soda to reduce smoke smells,” says a Church & Dwight Co. spokesperson. “Deodorize dry carpeting and trunk areas with a sprinkle of baking soda. Let set for 15 minutes, and then vacuum.”

The final step is using an odor bomb fogger, which should be allowed to set for a minimum of two hours (follow product directions). It may take a few days for the smell to dissipate. Don’t use a masking fragrance – it could enhance the odor problem.

Volcanic ash damages paint, infiltrates systems

Ash in a different form, affects vehicles after a volcanic eruption. Volcanoes can spew ash clouds more than 100,000 feet high and winds can carry small ash particles thousands of miles. These gritty bits of glass and tiny rocks are highly abrasive and mildly corrosive. Ash can abrade or scratch paint and other surfaces,  and infiltrate vehicle components.

“Avoid driving in heavy ash conditions,” says Daniel Blake, researcher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, because ash not only damages a vehicle, but it restricts visibility and reduces traction. Driving also will stir ash, which can clog engines and stall vehicles.

If driving is unavoidable, Blake suggests not using wipers. Ash caught between the glass and wiper blades will leave permanent scratch marks on the windshield and will scratch side windows when raised or lowered.

 “Experiences from eruptions worldwide show that regular maintenance activities are key to preventing vehicle damage,” Blake says. “This includes regularly changing air filters and oil, applying lubricant or grease more frequently, and using compressed air to clean essential vehicle components such as the wheel brake assemblies, alternator, starter, radiator and electrical equipment.”  

It's essential to repeatedly clean the entire vehicle, including under the hood, with water to flush the ash.  After sealing the air intake and covering electrical components, the engine compartment can be steam cleaned or washed with a water hose. 

When a vehicle receives damage from a natural disaster, quick action by the owner increases the odds of making the vehicle roadworthy. Whether the vehicle is subjected to volcanic ash, smoke/ash/soot or high water, having it inspected by a certified mechanic is recommended.