How to Recover a Vehicle After Flood Damage

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David Hilgendorf
by David Hilgendorf
September 15, 2022

1-in-1,000-years

Tragically, every year hurricanes and torrential rains lead to extensive flooding around the world, devastating countless countries, states, communities, households and individuals. However, more news reports are leading with titles like “1-in-1,000-year flood,” which equates to a 0.1% chance of happening in any given year.

In 2022, SIX such “rare” flooding events occurred across the U.S. in the span of one month, submerging parts of Illinois, Missouri, Texas and Kentucky, as well as both Death Valley and Yellowstone National Parks.

It seems meaningless compared to the lives lost, but it has been reported that up to 1 million vehicles are destroyed in each major flood event. Images of submerged vehicles quickly circulate the internet in each catastrophe’s wake. Floods are merciless and heartbreaking, but especially so on the massive scale we’ve been seeing in recent history.

1 million cars

There are many enthusiasts who scour automobile auctions for cheap used cars, perform any minimal repairs to get them operational, then resell them. If you’ve pondered why a non-franchised dealer is advertising luxury cars for less than $10,000 — they’ve probably been underwater.

There’s a good reason insurance companies document flood-damaged total loss payouts as salvage title vehicles. Due to the destructive effects of flooding on all parts of the vehicle, it’s best to keep them out of unsuspecting consumer hands.

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“How high’s the water, mama?” –Johnny Cash

What to do after your vehicle has been submerged

There are several websites with advice on dealing with cars caught in floodwaters. Here are a handful of tips extracted from AAA and Popular Mechanics.

  1. DO NOT start the engine. As the saying goes, oil and water do not mix. If there is water in the engine and transmission, starting the car will turn that oil/water mix into a gooey mess, making it much more difficult to clean, and potentially causing permanent damage.
  2. Identify the high-water line. Usually there will be leaves, debris or silt that indicates how far the vehicle was submerged. If the water line hits the windshield, scrap the vehicle.
  3. Disconnect the battery before tinkering. Electricity combined with water can fry the electronic components.
  4. Remove as much water from the vehicle as quickly as possible. The best and most commonly available tools are a wet/dry shop vac or carpet cleaner with an upholstery extension. Soak up as much additional moisture as you can with towels and run fans to dry the vehicle faster. Baking soda or other moisture-absorbing products may reduce the chance of mold taking over.
  5. Flush and replace all oil, drivetrain fluids and filters. Watch the video below to learn how. If this is beyond the scope of your auto maintenance skills, have your car towed on a flatbed truck to a mechanic.

There’s a reason so many people pay for roadside assistance through their insurance carrier or a third party, like AAA. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — so don’t forget to park on higher ground!

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by David Hilgendorf

AMSOIL Technical Writer and 20-year veteran of the motorcycle industry. Enjoys tearing things apart to figure out how they work. If it can’t be repaired, it’s not worth owning.

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