His three vehicles flooded by Hurricane Harvey, Jason Bell checked at one car-rental office only to find about 2,500 people ahead of him on the waiting list. When he tried a more out-of-the-way location, the reservations still numbered about 300.
Many other storm victims have the same problem. Tens of thousands of personal vehicles were inundated by floodwaters or smashed by wind-tossed objects, creating a huge demand for rentals that has put the cars in painfully short supply in the Houston area and across eastern Texas.
Rental companies say they are bringing in more vehicles from areas including the Southeast, but the logistics problems left by Harvey could get worse as Hurricane Irma threatens Florida.
Cesar Garcia of Port Arthur, Texas, doesn’t know when he will be driving again.
“I tried renting a car and none of those places said there was availability from here to Houston,” Garcia, 28, said Monday. “I was told ‘good luck.’ Nothing.”
Auto industry experts estimate as many as 1 million vehicles were damaged by Harvey, with most being total losses. State Farm, one of the largest U.S. auto insurers, said it has already received nearly 20,000 claims from the Houston area alone.
The scope of the problem is evident in a field that has become a massive parking lot for storm-damaged vehicles at Royal Purple Raceway, a dragstrip located on 500 acres in Baytown, about 35 miles east of Houston.
Tow trucks pulling or carrying flooded cars enter the parking area every few minutes, dropping them off so insurance adjusters can assess the damage. Water lines are evident on many of the vehicles, which workers say are mostly from the area east of Houston.
Dealership advertisements are visible on some of the cars, but many appear to be private vehicles. The owners may now be among those in lines at car rental counters.
Enterprise Holdings – which includes the Enterprise, National and Alamo car rental brands – said it has already moved more than 4,000 vehicles to southeast Texas and plans to bring in at least 17,000 more in coming weeks.
The Avis Budget Group, which operates Avis and Budget car rentals plus Budget Truck, said it also was moving additional vehicles into the affected areas and was waiving late fees, one-way rental fees and rental extension fees in the Houston area.
The car rental crunch extends outside the hurricane zone. Company websites show it can be hard to make reservations in cities that were not directly affected by Harvey, including Dallas, where many people headed to the Houston area landed before Houston airports reopened.
Until he can get a car, Bell is hitching rides from son Jason Bell Jr., who drove him to an Enterprise office in Beaumont.
The elder Bell said he lives on a high spot in his neighborhood, so friends left their cars on his property as a safeguard against rising waters. Then the entire area flooded for the first time, he said, and now his own house looks like a resting place for wet Fords, Chevys and other vehicles.
“There are probably 15 flooded cars in my yard right now,” he said.
(Associated Press Writer John Mone in Port Arthur contributed to this report.)
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