Hurricane Harvey: What to Do if Your Car Gets Damaged in a Flood

In nearly every outdoor photograph taken in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, you’ll see cars flooded in murky brown water. More likely than not, they’re destined for the scrapyard. There’s no quicker way to destroy a car than to flood it.
For most people, that means it’s time to get a new car. But what happens if your car is a classic you restored yourself or an old friend you can’t bear to part with? There’s a very slim chance your car is salvageable, but you have to be very, very careful.
If you ever find yourself the victim of a flood, you’ll have enough problems to deal with. If one of those headaches is a waterlogged car, here’s what you need to do to increase its chances of survival. 

1. Don’t start it

car in water
Starting your car could lead to disaster. | Micah Wright/The Cheat Sheet

You get to your car, and you need to move it. So you hop in, turn the key, and get the hell out of there, right? Wrong. If there’s water in your engine or compromising your electrical system, you’re already in serious trouble. If you try to start it, you’ll likely kill your engine and probably, by extension, your car.

2. Disconnect the battery

car battery
You don’t want to fry the battery. | Micah Wright/The Cheat Sheet

If you’ve ever spilled something on your phone or computer, you know how bad it is to try to turn it on while it’s still wet. Apply this same logic to your car. Today’s cars are more reliant on their electrical systems than ever. If you try turning it on while electrical components are wet, you could fry the whole thing. So before you do anything, pull the battery. You should be able to easily shift the car into neutral without any electrical power.

3. Get it to a dry place ASAP

Water floods the street after Hurricane Harvey.
Getting your car out of the water ASAP is vital. | Thomas B. Shea/AFP/Getty Images

The longer a car sits in water, the greater your chances are of serious rust damage. Salt water is significantly worse than fresh water — it accelerates corrosion — but regardless get it out of the water as quickly as possible. Make friends with someone who has a tow truck, wrecker, or truck with a winch. 

4. Call your insurance company

A car is stuck in water after Hurricane Harvey.
Take pictures, and send them to your insurance company. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Once your car is safe, it’s time to treat flood damage like an accident. Call your insurance company, and file a claim. Be sure to take lots of pictures. According to Houston’s KHOU, Texas drivers are covered for floods if they have comprehensive insurance. If you aren’t sure about your coverage, call your insurer right away.

5. Dry it out

A woman with an umbrella walks from her car in a flooded street.
Let your car air out. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

This might sound like a no-brainer, but as soon as your car is out of the drink let it dry. Open up the doors, hood, and trunk. Remove the seats, console, and carpets. Go crazy with a wet vac. And when it’s all dry, pack the interior with deodorizers to get rid of any musty smells. Don’t wait for your insurance adjuster to arrive — it’s likely swamped with claims. Take lots of pictures, but act fast. The last thing you want is mold and mildew settling into your interior. 

6. Check the internals

Truck underwater after Hurricane Harvey
Check for any water in the engine. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

As a precautionary measure, you might also want to drain the oil, coolant, and transmission fluid, just in case water got into sensitive areas. Check your dipstick for any water droplets. If you find some, your engine might be toast. If your engine is full of water, that means it’s either time for a new one or a total rebuild. 

7. Drain your gas tank

Cars in flooded streets after hurricane
Your gas tank might be compromised. | Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Let’s say you get lucky and your engine wasn’t harmed by floodwater. You might not be in the clear yet. Siphon a little fuel out of your tank, and give it a good look. If there’s water in it, then it will separate from the fuel, removing any doubt. If your tank has been compromised, then you’ll probably need to look into a new fuel tank and lines. 

8. Know when to say goodbye

Car underwater after flooding
Some things are too far gone. | Thomas B. Shea/AFP/Getty Images

It might not be much of a loss if you lose your commuter. The insurance company totals your car, and you go buy another. But in every natural disaster, there are always stories that emerge of people losing their dream cars or cars they spent years rebuilding. Yes, virtually every car can be rebuilt, in theory. But there comes a time when it just doesn’t make financial sense to save your ride.

Read more: Donating to Hurricane Harvey Victims? 7 Tips for Avoiding Fake Charity Scams