Not Just a Car. A Storm Victim, Too.

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LONG BEACH, N.Y. -- My dear, fun 2002 Volkswagen Cabrio -- my black convertible summer car, the car that carried the family's surfboards and bikes, that on warm nights with the top down, I'd take for moonlight drives along Jones Beach -- was pronounced dead on Feb. 21 at the Alliance Auto Parts salvage yard at 50-16 72nd Street in Woodside, Queens, one more victim of Hurricane Sandy.

Cause of death: inundation by salt water.

 The car was flooded in our driveway on the night of Oct. 29, when four feet of ocean breached the dune that had long served as our flood barrier and surged down our street.

It lingered for nearly four months. The first week after the storm, the Cabrio drove fine. I thought I'd dodged a bullet, and then one thing after another stopped working -- the radio, the pump that lowered and raised the top, the heater fan ...

Not long after, the insurance company told me they were going to total it, and I decided to follow the car each step of the way to its end, wherever that took me.

I wanted to answer a question as old as the gas engine: Exactly where do flooded cars go to die?

There had been news reports of cars being taken to the Midwest for resale or turning up on eBay, and I wanted to see if mine would be given a proper send-off. That was why on Nov. 30 I rode with John Cohen, owner of Countywide Towing Enforcement, who was contracted by State Farm to tow the Cabrio from our driveway to an impound yard in Medford, on Long Island, an hour's ride away. There it joined thousands of flooded cars -- total losses as far as the eye could see, all waiting to be auctioned.

Usually, cars in these wrecking yards arrive smashed up. After Sandy, things had changed: Mr. Cohen, 49, has been towing most of his adult life and was struck by how normal the flooded cars looked.

Salt water is a hidden killer.

With the help of State Farm, I tracked the Cabrio when it was sold to the highest bidder, Sal Ingardia, general manager of Alliance. And I was there on Feb. 21, when Wilson Mora, one of Alliance's dismantlers, removed the battery and gas tank.

"Once the battery's out, no electrical," Mr. Ingardia said. "Once the gas tank's out, no gas. The car is dead."

At 1:09 p.m., after a considerable struggle, Mr. Mora yanked out the battery and then, using a crowbar the size of Mario Andretti, pried the gas tank loose. "That's it," Mr. Ingardia said, and peering into the dislodged gas tank, he noted, "It was full."

Exact time of death: 1:23 p.m.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates that 250,500 cars were lost in Sandy, and this is the story of one of no particular importance -- except that it was mine. The Cabrio was a bitty thing, born with just 4 cylinders and weighing but 2,838 pounds, assembled at a factory in Puebla, Mexico, according to its window sticker, with a transmission that had been shipped from Germany. It entered this country through the Port of Boston, known only by its vehicle identification number, 3VWDC21VX2M807914, (or 807914 for short).

 The sticker price was $23,825. I bought it three years ago, with 137,526 miles, for $3,300.

It was the family's happy times car. The best thing by far: it was a convertible. I drove it mostly around town, top down, radio up. It didn't use a lot of gas. Even food shopping was more enjoyable in a convertible -- so easy to toss grocery bags in the back seat.

I can't say that it made me feel young, but I did feel better about being old.

I never washed it, and it still looked black.

At first my three teenage sons made fun of me. They said it was a girl's car, but before long, they were asking to borrow it. "Please Dad, come on Dad, we love you Dad, we promise, we'll keep it good, Dad, we swear Dad, next time we won't throw our empty Busch Lights in the back, not a drop will be spilled Dad, we won't even leave the surfboard wax on the hood, Dad, never again, no way."

I figured if it survived my sons, it would live forever.

The night of the storm, it did not occur to me to park it on high ground. We'd lived on the beach for 30 years, through several hurricanes, and never had trouble.

The ocean had come up three to four feet, but then receded within an hour. By the next morning, there was an inch of salt water puddled on the car's back floor and moisture inside the windows, but it started right up. The house had no electricity -- we wouldn't get it back for a month -- and I sat in the Cabrio, listening for news updates. With all the deaths, and all the people who lost homes, I felt lucky: the family was safe, and only the first floor of the house was ruined.

Two weeks later, the car wouldn't start.

The State Farm agent said that because salt water ruins just about everything, most of the flooded cars were being classified as totaled. The insurance company cut a check for $4,700.

It's not a scientific sampling, but my neighbors seemed to feel that their insurance companies' compensation for Sandy cars was fair. No one I spoke with from the industry would tell me on the record, but it appeared that the companies moved to settle quickly because they had so many cars to move and didn't want to slow the process with haggling.

Also, the world was watching. As Mr. Ingardia put it: "The governor wants all these cars gone, the environmentalists want them all gone, everyone wants them all gone -- no one wants 200,000 cars sitting in their backyard."

The Cabrio was auctioned on Jan. 22 at the Medford lot.

To recap: new, it cost $23,835; I bought it for $3,300; State Farm paid me $4,700.

And the salvage company bought it from State Farm for $625.

Mr. Ingardia has been working 12-hour days since Sandy, trying to keep up with all the cars being towed in. Normally, he has 15 waiting to be stripped; now it's 40.

From dawn to dusk, the yard is filled with the beep-beep-beep of heavy machinery going backward.

"Camrys, Honda Accords, Chevy Malibus," Mr. Ingardia said, "Salt water is salt water, Mercedes or Toyota."

With run-of-the-mill wrecks he can usually salvage 70 percent, including the body; for a Sandy car it's more like 30 percent, he said. "You lose the electrical -- wiring, transmission, radio, climate control, computer, wiper motor ..."

Typically, he said, he could sell as many as 40 parts; on a Sandy car it's 10 to 15. The tag prices: wheel, $45; engine, $350; door, $175. At Alliance, Madan Budhei is the first line of salvage. He's sort of a medical examiner for wrecked cars; after 18 years of doing inventory, it doesn't take him long to figure out which parts will live and which will die.

When he opened the trunk, an inch of the Atlantic was sloshing around, but when he checked the headlights they were dry, which told him that the car had been parked on an angle in the driveway, rear end downward. 

As it was raised on the lift, a little more salt water spilled out of the tailpipe, and Mr. Ingardia made a face. "Look at this tranny," he said. "Garbage altogether."

After hooking up the battery to a charger, Mr. Budhei turned the key.

It started.

We looked at each other.

"Nice engine," Mr. Ingardia said. "You hear that? How many miles on this thing?"

I asked if I could get in and sit behind the wheel. My mind was racing -- could I buy it back? Would that be legal?

I tried to put the top down, but it wouldn't budge, the seat wouldn't slide, then the horn started blaring and I couldn't get it to stop.

"That's why we get rid of them," Mr. Ingardia said.

For the next three hours, Mr. Mora dismantled the VW, using a stunning number of tools -- a deafening impact wrench, drills, hammers, wire cutters, crowbars, pliers and even what appeared to be a bread knife.

For a while the car still looked like mine, so much, in fact, that I found it hard to believe the thing was dead. But then, under the force of Mr. Mora's relentless dismantling, the front end fell off, the engine was removed, the tires and aluminum rims were rolled away, the fender wells were wrestled out.

On March 4, it reported for crushing at Gershow Recycling in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which paid Mr. Ingardia $142.50 for the remains.

"It's your car, right?" asked Eric Kugler, the manager at Gershow. "We don't get a lot of Cabrios. Most people don't want to give them up."

I nodded.  

Dexter Trumpet lifted it with his loader and stacked it on top of two other wrecks in the high-speed crusher.

Crush, crush, crush. In under a minute, it was as flat as -- you guessed it -- a pancake.

The next trip was back to Long Island, to be shredded.

"Pieces are about this big," said Mr. Kugler, holding up one of those little yellow sticky Post-its. "You going? It's pretty interesting."

I thanked him and told him I really appreciated it, but I'd seen enough.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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