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Cars Flooded

Stalled vehicles remained on Greenway Boulevard in Middleton on Tuesday, a day after record rainfall stranded motorists. Experts say most of the flooded vehicles are a total loss.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles that stalled in rising floodwaters or were submerged while parked during Monday’s torrential rains are likely total losses, experts say.

Car engines’ sensitivity to water and the prevalence of computers and electronics in virtually every aspect of vehicle operation make water damage particularly difficult, if not impossible, to remediate, said Paul Flogel, director of the automotive technician program at Madison Area Technical College.

Mark Follmann, a claims manager at American Family Insurance, said most of the vehicles that have flood damage will be considered total losses because of the lasting nature of flood damage. The good news, if there is any: Flood damage in vehicles is covered through comprehensive insurance plans.

Vehicles are not designed to be submerged, and water can get into the engine through air intakes, Flogel said. Since water compresses differently from air, running the engine can cause it to break down.

Even if an engine survives a flood or is repaired, damaged electronics can cause many lasting problems, Flogel said. Everything from the car’s dashboard to the door locks use electronics now, and sophisticated computers run vehicle essentials such as steering and braking. Even necessary safety features such as deploying an airbag in a crash are assisted by computers.

“If you get a vehicle even a little dried out and you start it up, the dashboard will light up like a Christmas tree,” Flogel said, because of the warning lights for various features in the car.

Westside Service Center mechanic James Waddell said hybrid cars are even less likely to be saved and could be even more dangerous because the battery used to power the car is often placed low in the back and susceptible to damage.

Waddell said he has taken a handful of flooded vehicles into his shop this week — more requests had to be turned away because the shop was at capacity — and he’s also recommended to owners that they consider their cars totaled.

“It might dry out to where you can drive it, but there’s going to be a lot of electronics issues down the road,” Waddell said.

Contaminants like mud and sewage found in floodwater could also affect the electronics, Flogel said, and continue to corrode them as time goes on. Short circuits and other failures can come days, weeks or months after a car has been flooded.

If a vehicle was submerged deep enough for water to come into the interior, many electronics have likely been affected, Flogel said.

Vehicles that are total losses can be sold for salvaged parts or donated to charities such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or Make-a-Wish Wisconsin.

If an owner wants to sell a flood-damaged car, Wisconsin law mandates such vehicles be marked with salvage titles, indicating to buyers that it is a salvaged vehicle.

The driver-advocacy website dmv.org warns drivers against buying used vehicles that may have been flooded.

“Walk away if it’s been flooded,” the group says. “No matter the price, that will never be a good deal.”

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.