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Flooded Louisiana vehicles: Stories of devastated families, jammed tow truck, insurance, salvage companies

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Cameron Blanchard is like thousands of others hit hard by the recent floods in south Louisiana. His house and most of his belongings went underwater at his house off O’Neal Lane.

But it’s the loss of his two cars that had Blanchard worried Tuesday as he stood outside the Celtic Studios shelter off Airline Highway. Though he hadn’t tried to drive them yet, he was pretty sure they were totaled; grass and debris littered the interiors and engine of both.

“I only have liability,” he said, referring to his insurance coverage. That means the money to replace the cars will have to come out of his own pocket, something that will be tough for the 28-year-old, who relies on his cars to get to work and school.

Blanchard isn’t alone. There are no firm estimates yet on the number of cars destroyed, but it’s at least in the five-figure range.

As of Wednesday, State Farm — just one of the insurers that serves car owners in the area — had received almost 18,000 auto claims related to flooding. That number was more than double the number of homeowner claims the company had received, spokesman Roszell Gadsen said.

With such a large volume, towing companies have been stretched to the limit.

“We’ve been working around the clock,” said Ronnie Stewart, of Stewart’s Towing in Livingston Parish.

“It’s been hectic and crazy,” Stewart said. He estimated that his company, a small one with four trucks, had towed more than 300 cars since the waters receded.

There were still plenty more left to be towed.

“We probably haven’t put a dent in all the cars that’s flooded,” he said.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, the woman who answered the phone at Roadrunner Towing said there were no words to describe how busy it had been. Roadrunner, which has contracts with several local police agencies, had towed more than 700 vehicles by midweek.

Most of the cars are being taken to private towers’ yards or large auto salvage yards like Insurance Auto Auctions in Livingston or Copart in Greenwell Springs.

Jeanene O’Brien, of Insurance Auto Auctions, said the company is handling “thousands of cars per day.”

A car’s trip to one of these yards will be the first leg of its journey to the compactor or the junkyard.

When a flood-damaged car arrives at Insurance Auto Auctions’ yard in Livingston, for example, the vehicle identification number is registered with both the National Insurance Crime Bureau and the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

The state’s Office of Motor Vehicles also will issue a certificate of destruction for any car that is totaled because of a gubernatorially declared disaster. The certificate is reported to those same national databases as a “fatal brand,” or one that should prevent the car from being sold for anything besides parts or scrap.

Insurance Auto Auctions sells only to licensed dealers, scrappers or dismantlers, O’Brien said. Members of the public cannot purchase cars from the company’s lots in Louisiana.

The process has improved since Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of destroyed cars remained under highway overpasses for months, said Jill Jarreau, of the OMV.

“We are learning as each situation goes on, and it becomes more and more efficient each time,” Jarreau said. “What we have in place now helps protect consumers and transferers.”

Even when a person has insurance, the delays caused by overburdened claims services after a disaster can still cause headaches.

Jeanne Savoy lives on the west side of Denham Springs. The more than 3 feet of water that washed into her house also swamped her Hyundai Sonata.

Savoy tried to get a rental car, but the best she could get was on a waiting list, so she ended up buying a nearly 10-year-old pickup truck to get her back and forth to work in Baton Rouge.

“The money that we were saving was supposed to go to a car for my son,” she said. Her insurance offers rental coverage, but that lasts only 30 days, she said. She’s afraid that it may be more than 30 days before her car is demolished and she gets a check for the Sonata.

“I would not want to get one and waste my 30 days when they haven’t even looked at it,” she said.

Fellow Denham Springs resident Jeff Burris is in a similar bind. His Toyota Highlander and Honda Accord both were flooded. He has insurance, but as of late in the week, the cars were still sitting in the driveway. “The tow truck has never showed up,” he said.

Burris is driving a van he borrowed from his sister in Jackson, Mississippi, but that’s only a temporary fix. “We don’t know what we are going to do,” he said. “We are just taking it day by day.”