Sandy Sends Wrecked Autos to Belmont Racetrack

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Many cars damaged by Sandy are taken to a parking lot at Belmont racetrack (Ilya Marritz/WNYC)

Sandy wrecked hundreds of thousands of cars along the New York and New Jersey shorelines and could cost insurers an estimated $800 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Once an adjuster from an insurance company determines that a car is a total loss, it’s up people like Micah Hardy to start the process of “disappearing” the flooded vehicle.

But then what?

Across the street from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on Coney Island, Hardy gestured at two sedans on loaded on his flatbed truck, a Honda and a Toyota.

“Basically, all these are totaled out cars from the storm,” he said. While the cars looked new, water trapped in the headlights showed how high Sandy’s storm surge reached. Grease pencil writing on the windows indicated both cars were insured by Geico.

Sandy’s damaged or destroyed close to a quarter of a million vehicles according to the Insurance Information Institute.  Every vehicle that has damage-insurance has to be examined, and if deemed a total loss, towed away and disposed.

“There’s in this area, about 900 cars that have been totaled out by insurance companies,” said Hardy who came up from Florida the day after Thanksgiving for the regular work.  “We’re picking them up and taking them to a staging area, and then they're hauling them out from there.”

Most of these wrecked cars will ultimately be sold for parts or shredded and melted down for raw materials, according to Brian Sullivan, editor of Auto Insurance Report, a trade newsletter.

“Salvage cars are kind of like when someone butchers a pig and they talk about using everything but the squeak,” Sullivan said. “These cars get broken down, and everything gets reused that can be reused.”

Headlights, fenders, hoods, even the lens over your backup light. It all has value.

“Even a damaged car, this is a pretty big asset here. If an insurance company’s going to get even $2,500 back from it, that’s a lot of money,” he said.

A decade ago, storm-damaged vehicles might turn up on a used car lot or wind up on the auction block. That can still happen, but title-tracking services like Carfax make it easier for car buyers to get more information about the used cars they are considering buying. 

Nowadays, damaged and flooded cars are sold by one of two national auction houses that only sell to pre-qualified bidders like Insurance Auto Auctions based in Illinois.

“Once a vehicle has been deemed a total loss, we provide the transportation of the vehicle, we take the vehicle into our inventory and then we sell the vehicle on behalf of the insurance company,” said Jeanene O’Brien, an executive with the company.

O’Brien said Katrina may have wrecked a larger number of cars, but Sandy has been a a bigger challenge.

“It hit in the most densely populated area of the United States.  Two things happened then. Number one, there’s lots and lots of cars, and number two, there’s not lots of land available,” O’Brien said.

So the cars are going to where there is space. A new tow truck arrives every minute or so at a vast triangular parking lot on the Queens-Nassau border, which normally serves Belmont racetrack.

O’Brien said many of these cars will then be taken next to Calverton Airpark, a little-used airport 70 miles east of New York City.

Over the next month or so, parts businesses and recyclers will bid on these cars at auction online or in person, and then come to pick them up. O’Brien expects December will probably be the biggest time for sales and that most cars will be gone in a matter of months.

Not everything, however, moves as quickly. Micah Hardy said most days he only makes three or four trips between Coney Island and Belmont. He called moving junk cars a hurry-up-and-wait kind of job.

“I’ve ran three today that, one was blocked by the fire department, one was not at the address, and the other one was at a location that money was still owed on the vehicle so I was unable to get it,” Hardy said. “So there are a lot of dry runs that you do that you don’t get anything.”

Hardy said he expects to continue towing cars 12 hours a day, seven days a week, right up until Christmas.

If your car was damaged because of Sandy, tell us in the comments section how about your experience working with your insurer.


Ilya Marritz/WNYC
Micah Hardy expects to continue towing cars 7 days a week until Christmas
Sandy's storm surge destroyed cars' insides while leaving their outsides largely intact
A vast parking lot by Belmont Park is a transit point for damaged cars


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Comments [5]

Kressel from Rockland County

I guess we lucked out. Our neighbor's tree fell on our car and smashed the rear windshield. The insurance company paid for the replacement right away.

Dec. 14 2012 12:37 PM
andy ginter from upstate (ithaca)

possible victim of auto insurance "speculation" here, seems like some companies slack off on settling certain claims in preparation for major disasters,(?) i had GEICO for 12 years, never any accidents, never filed a claim, then, within five months, two bad collisions, where young college women,(one girl was 18, one was 21) who were speeding, probably talking on their cellphones, slammed into vehicles i was driving, totalled one, one wreck sent my fiancee to the hospital many times, traumatized, and i was so busy trying to keep her sane after the first accident that by the time of the 2nd, GEICO still hadn't settled on the 1st. i kept calling them until i realized they had been lying to us. fiancee got sick of waiting, i bought her a buick, she went back with progressive, drove it to N.Y.C. LAST year, and lost it to irene! now none of the companies want to talk to me! (too busy, i understand), but we are still out all of our vehicles, and i have lost my license, from driving the van wrecked in the 2nd accident. a real mess.

Dec. 09 2012 11:53 AM
Willa from Brooklyn, NY

Although my car was not flooded, shortly after the storm I needed to get gas. I filled up the tank and it turns out it was contaminated, presumably since the gas storage facilities in NJ had been flooded. The contaminated gas turned out to cause a full paycheck's worth of damage to my car. Over a month later, I'm caught in a struggle with ExxonMobil and CPD Energy trying to get reimbursed for the damage they did to my car. The service center where I got my car replaced said this was a common problem post-Sandy, but I haven't heard any news coverage about it. Would be great to get this issue some press coverage to encourage gas companies to do right by their customers.

Dec. 08 2012 01:04 PM
kate from Hudson River

My car drowned in the towns "safe" parking lot. That Wednesday I got a ride to my mechanic and bought a new car with cash. I knew the guy and trusted him. The mechanic was twelve miles inland and so his machines were working.. His Lady and I spent two and a half hours talking to Geico. We claimed the old car and registered the new car. Geico didn't drop the call once...Suffern's power flicked once or twice but they got back to us. A week later tow trucks arrived and my, and the other dead cars were hauled away...I still don't have heat but what the heck I have a new used car. and yes My address moved around a bit I got the check from Geico about three weeks later.

Dec. 08 2012 09:19 AM
Dave Ruby from Westchester

Thank you for this story. I've been wondering about the stream of cars on flatbeds heading out east on the LIE. Now I have the answer.

Dec. 06 2012 06:30 PM

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