What next? Houston dealers plan damage assessment

This car dealership near Houston is covered by floodwaters. Photo credit: REUTERS/Rick Wilking

HOUSTON — Fort Bend Kia, in the Houston suburb of Rosenberg, Texas, closed last Friday afternoon just hours ahead of Hurricane Harvey’s slamming onto land and beginning its days-long run of destruction.

Owner Virgil Skinner, the immediate past chairman of the Houston Automobile Dealers Association, said his small store suffered only minor damage. But he was well aware that many others didn’t get off so lightly.

“Five miles south of me, there are neighborhoods completely submerged,” Skinner told Automotive News. “All over the city there are areas that are high and dry, yet within a few miles there are places with water up to the second floor.

“I’ve got a couple of employees we can’t even reach right now. There are employees that work for other dealerships who are on their roofs, waiting to be rescued.

“My department managers and I have been keeping in contact with most of my employees through group text messaging. But several employees have been evacuated from the Houston area. We are under a voluntary evacuation. The rain has stopped in my particular part of the city but rivers are rising rapidly and are expected to crest at an all-time record level Thursday. The water could even top the levees that protect the homes in Sugar Land [a suburb southwest of Houston]. Some residents have been asked to leave even though they may not be experiencing any difficulties now. If the Brazos River were to top the levee system, it would be a disaster.”

Responses

Skinner and current HADA President Wyatt Wainwright, who was told he had to leave his home as a safety precaution, are working on coming up with meaningful responses.

“Wyatt and I were on a conference call” with the National Automobile Dealers Association and Texas Automobile Dealers Association, Skinner said Tuesday afternoon, as patches of sunshine and blue sky started to reappear. “NADA is reaching out with their foundation to help assist affected employees to help them get back on their feet. We were talking about how we can get the word out to them. They’re making arrangements to come down to Houston next week to shoot video that will be used for fund-raising efforts. There’s also an significant undertaking underway to email member dealers and alert them to the financial support available and how their employees can begin the process to obtain the assistance.”

In the worst cases of flooding, “you can’t even get to your store to see what it needs and what’s happened,” Skinner said. “Until the water recedes you can’t get in there to start cleanup. The next step is to try and navigate to it. The Houston area has so many streets, underpasses and frontage roads that are under water it’s hard to get into the city.”

Tedious

The message Skinner is sending is that the post-Harvey recovery will be tedious and painful, but vital.

“It’s going to take the better part of a week for dealers to actually get into their stores, assess the damage and come up with a plan to get back in business,” he said. “Not just for themselves but especially for the employees. They depend on me so they can cover their house notes, pay for utilities and buy groceries. So the No. 1 priority for every dealer in Houston is to get up and running. In hand with that, we need to support the community any way we can and get their cars repaired or replaced.

“Transportation is going to be their No. 2 priority, next to their home — particularly in a city like Houston where you don’t have mass transportation,” he added. Sprawling over 8,778 square miles, an area larger than New Jersey, greater Houston “is so large you have to have a vehicle to get around,” Skinner said. “It can take a full tank of gas to get from one end to the other.”

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