Florida dealers brace as Hurricane Dorian approaches

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —¬†Auto retailers in South Florida on Friday were preparing for Hurricane Dorian, which as of Friday morning was expected to hit South and Central Florida’s Atlantic coast early next week, potentially as a powerful Category 4 storm.

Earl Stewart, whose Earl Stewart Toyota is but 1,000 yards from the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in Lake Park, reflected the experience of a state where it’s more common to see a hurricane season with a storm than without one.

“We’ve been through several hurricanes,” Stewart told Automotive News. “We’ve never had any broken glass. It just doesn’t happen the way people think it does. All the trees with coconuts were trimmed and people do all that.”

Pointing to the windows in his empty showroom Thursday, Stewart added, “This is probably high-impact glass.”

Any real damage to the store would be the psychological effects on his customers, he said, as Floridians tend to put off vehicle purchases and repairs in lieu of hurricane preparation.

Preparations were being made Friday as Dorian churned through the Atlantic Ocean as a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of up to 110 miles per hour. Forecasters said the storm was expected to strengthen into a Category 3 hurricane later Friday, and could build to a Category 4 storm over the weekend with winds of up to 130 miles per hour.

At a Publix grocery store across the street from Stewart’s store, customers were said to be waiting in line before the store opened on Friday morning because it ran out of water on Thursday.

Dealer groups prepare

Elsewhere, AutoNation had its storm team up and running, with teams positioned throughout Florida, company chief marketing officer Marc Cannon said in an email to Automotive News. The company’s internal communications hub in Dallas will be giving updates to the company twice daily. The retail group, in the meantime, is taking a wait-and-see approach, and conducting business as usual. It will determine store closings, if any, on Saturday afternoon.

CarMax plans to close 10 stores in Florida at the end of business on Friday to allow employees time to prepare for the storm. “We will continue to monitor the situation and support our associates,” CarMax senior vice president of store operations Darren Newberry said in an email.

The state was under a declaration of emergency Friday. Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday he has activated 2,500 members of the National Guard, with 1,500 more on standby. “With Hurricane Dorian strengthening, I have sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting that he declare a pre-landfall disaster for all of Florida’s 67 counties,” DeSantis said in a statement.

Florida Automobile Dealers Association President Ted Smith said dealers are securing inventory and working with their insurers.

Protecting inventory

Some dealerships are expected to store their inventory in garages, Smith said, while others will surround their newer inventory with older models on an exposed lot in an effort to shield the newest vehicles from the brunt of wind damage. Buildings, despite their sturdy construction, are susceptible to wind that blows through service bay doors, Smith said, making hurricanes “absolutely catastrophic events for a dealership.”

“They’re as ready as they can be,” Smith told Automotive News.

Making matters worse: The storm’s trajectory is during Labor Day weekend, as dealers work to meet month-end sales goals on what already is expected to be a busy sales weekend.

Smith said many auto insurers suspend writing new policies when hurricane alerts have been issued. That means buyers looking for a new vehicle — and aren’t transferring existing coverage from a trade-in model — likely won’t be able to purchase until the hurricane emergency has passed.

“It couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” he said of Dorian.

The Florida dealers’ association has a charitable foundation that has been used in the past to assist employees of dealerships damaged by hurricanes, and it stands ready to help after Dorian, Smith said.

“We’d like to pray this storm back into the ocean,” Smith added, “but if that doesn’t happen, we’ll do the best we can.”

Tom Worobec contributed to this report.

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