Six of the 10 costliest hurricanes on record in the United States have happened in the last five years. In 2021, hurricanes led to 68 deaths in the U.S., and Hurricane Ida alone damaged as many as 212,000 cars.
Just four years earlier, Irma and Harvey took out roughly four times as many vehicles.
The takeaway? Everyone at risk should have a hurricane preparedness plan ready to roll on June 1 every year. (The Atlantic hurricane season in the U.S. goes from June through November.)
If you live near the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, where hurricanes and tropical storms tend to blow through, you can prepare by purchasing the right home and auto insurance, assembling a well-stocked emergency kit and creating an evacuation plan for your family in case a storm should get serious.
But have you also thought about what you need to do to prepare your car before a hurricane hits?
Cars can be costly to replace or repair in the aftermath of a hurricane. Here are some tips you’ll want to keep in mind.
Preparing Your Car Before the Storm
In advance of any inclement weather, make sure your car is in good working condition. That way, you can leave without a problem if you need to evacuate, said Roszell Gadson, a spokesman for State Farm insurance company.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security advises car owners to have a mechanic check the following before anticipated natural disasters:
- Antifreeze levels
- Battery and ignition system
- Exhaust system
- Fuel and air filters
- Heater and defroster
- Lights and flashing hazard lights
- Windshield-wiper equipment and washer fluid level
The auto club AAA recommends keeping your gas tank full prior to the onset of stormy weather. If you get in the habit of keeping your tank nearly full during hurricane season, you won’t end up stuck in ridiculously long gas station lines the day before a storm.
Consider signing up for a gas rewards program to keep costs down; fuel prices are expected to reach “apocalyptic” levels this hurricane season, according to industry experts. The store where you buy food may also sell gas and have grocery fuel rewards programs.
Finally, just as you should have an emergency kit at home, you should also carry one in your car. Some important items to include are:
- A paper map with evacuation routes highlighted in case the GPS signal goes down
- A phone charger — perhaps an emergency charger that works without electricity
- A first-aid kit
- Water and nonperishable food or snacks
- A blanket
- A flashlight with extra batteries.
Your car should also be equipped with emergency supplies, including a spare tire, jumper cables, a windshield scraper and a hazard triangle or road flares.
Have a battery-operated charger handy to keep your smartphone running if the power goes out. And just in case, keep an emergency radio in the trunk of your car or your hurricane kit.
What to Know When Evacuating
If your emergency plan includes evacuating, getting on the road well ahead of the storm can save you from being stuck in bad traffic or inclement weather. But if you are driving in rainy, windy conditions, you should take a few precautions.
The Red Cross advises following marked evacuation routes only; never try shortcuts, as they may be blocked. Slow down, wear your seat belts and anticipate traffic lights and signs to be missing or not working properly, says the CDC.
Most importantly, don’t drive through water. All it takes is six inches of water to cause you to lose control of your vehicle. And at two feet, water can easily carry your vehicle away.
AAA recommends drivers heed the following advice when driving through rainy, windy weather:
- Turn your headlights on in the rain, but avoid using high beams.
- Reduce your speed.
- Increase the amount of space between your car and the vehicle in front of you.
- Don’t use cruise control.
- Keep a firm grip on the steering wheel in windy conditions.
- Treat traffic signal blackouts like intersections with a four-way stop sign.
AAA also suggests drivers pull off the road as far as they can, turn on their emergency flashers and wait for the rain to ease up if the downpour is so bad that you can’t see the edges of the road or other cars at a safe distance.
Protecting Cars in a Hurricane’s Path
If you plan to stay home, make sure to have your car parked in as safe a location as possible.
“This might include higher ground that is less likely to be subject to flooding,” said Gadson of State Farm.
Your garage can protect the car from blowing debris. If you have to leave your car outdoors, Gadson said, be sure to secure outdoor furniture or other items that could get picked up by high winds and damage your vehicle. You should also cover the vehicle with a custom car cover (or blankets and cardboard, in a pinch) to protect it from scratches and dings.
The idea that taping car windows before a hurricane can somehow keep the glass from breaking is a myth, but you can protect your car windows by applying a layer of security window film. It’s not a guaranteed method, but it can strengthen your car windows against debris in the high winds.
Gadson advises that drivers review their auto insurance policies with their insurance agent prior to a storm. In addition, drivers should take photos of their property before a storm hits and make sure they keep important papers — like the car title and insurance documents — in a safe place.
Gadson said State Farm encourages its customers to maintain comprehensive coverage, which includes loss or damage caused by severe weather.
If Your Car Is Damaged
After a hurricane, assess your vehicle for damage. Any dings, scratches and broken glass may be covered by insurance, but more importantly, if your vehicle sat or drove through standing water, a mechanic will need to conduct a more thorough inspection.
Flood water can do irreversible damage to vehicles. In fact, your insurance may decide to total out your car if it has extensive water damage from a hurricane. If that happens and you are buying a used car to replace it, keep in mind that the used cars in your area were also possibly exposed to the recent hurricane — and ill-intentioned sellers may be trying to cover up the damage.
How to Avoid Buying a Flood-Damaged Used Car
Make sure you know how to spot flood-damaged cars before hitting up the used dealer lot. When buying from a lot, get the CARFAX vehicle history report if you suspect flood damage. Here’s what you should be on the lookout for if buying from an individual:
- Foul odors, particularly mold and mildew. These smells can signal that a car has been in standing water for a prolonged amount of time.
- Discolored carpeting or rusted metal. Stains in carpeting or seat fabrics are also indicators of standing water. Rust on the body or the undercarriage is a sign of excessive water exposure, particularly in newer cars.
- Inexplicable dirt build-up, like in the trunk or along the seat tracks. This is a sign that mud got into places where muddy feet typically do not travel.
- Water build-up in headlights and taillights. Fogginess in the lighting can also be a sign of prolonged water exposure.
- Mismatching parts, like seat materials compared to floor mats. A clever seller may replace a damaged floor mat, hoping you won’t notice that it isn’t a perfect match to the other mats or the seat fabric.
For added precaution, have a trusted mechanic give the vehicle a once-over before you sign on the dotted line. Avoid any seller who is uncomfortable with you taking the car to a mechanic.
Nicole Dow is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder and Timothy Moore is a regular contributor covering banking, investing and automotive topics.