In a parking lot packed like Christmas at the mall, more than 5,000 cars wrecked by Hurricane Matthew wait for a bargain-hunter’s eye: a Hummer with silt on the dashboard, a Chevy Impala with mold spots on the steering wheel and a Toyota RAV4 muddy from the tires to the roof rack.
Each car sits marked with a yellow line drawn across the side, showing how high the rivers and swamps climbed up the doorway after Matthew roared across the state in October. On a Cadillac Fleetwood limousine, its lug nuts orange with rust, that line reaches halfway to the window.
Gathered in one spot, this fleet of ruined vehicles offers a stark picture of the storm’s reach. Each one of them – the Ford Taurus with Betty Boop seat covers, the Toyota Camry with the surf shop bumper sticker – left somebody stranded. Now all of them are up for auction, if only for parts or salvage.
Copart, the online vehicle auctioneer based in Texas, has about 1,000 vehicles at its lot in Dunn, said Cordella Brown, general manager. But the bulk of its Matthew-related inventory has been assembled at the old Converse shoe plant outside of Lumberton, which manufactured Chuck Taylor All-Stars by the millions before it closed in 2001.
“We couldn’t hold all these cars,” said Brown, “and this was available for rent. A lot of the locals want to know what’s going on.”
While buyers are free to kick a soggy tire on the Lumberton lot, all auctions are being held on Copart.com. And not just cars. Matthew wiped out a fleet of golf carts, a row of recreational vehicles, a four-wheeler or two and, strangely enough, several boats. Most vehicles on the Copart lot were classified as a total loss by insurance companies. Others came from flood victims without insurance.
And while many still need their title work complete before they can be sold, some of them remain drivable. Still, caveat emptor. Be mindful of smells, rust spots and water marks. A car that looks kosher on the outside might be rusting from within, and a flooded engine is tough to completely repair.
Bidding on a 2005 Acura stood at $225 Wednesday; a 2008 BMW, $90. Customers will note from the online photographs that both cars spent some time looking at Matthew from a fish’s perspective.
“Of course,” Brown said, “the lower the water, the less damage.”
By setting up shop in Lumberton, Copart has centered its sale near some of the storm’s most devastated spots. In the early days, its employees stayed in a campground at South of the Border, then inside its own trailers.
Matthew killed 28 people in North Carolina and caused more than $1 billion in damage. In Robeson County, with Lumberton at its center, the Lumber River rose 9 feet above flood stage, shutting down Interstate 95, swamping a water treatment plant, spreading across the west side of the city and flooding four housing developments full of nearly 1,500 people. Many of the cars in the Copart lot, it can be assumed, had only a few miles to travel.
The flood struck so quickly that cars, as personal and vital as they seem on a regular day, became an afterthought. A black Camaro still had a CD by the rapper DMX on the front console. A Hyundai had prescription bottles and food wrappers on the floorboards. One Chevrolet Traverse carried a memorial sticker over its rear bumper. “In Memory of Tab Owens,” it read. “Mama, don’t worry about me.”
“We’ve had a lot of people come out to rescue their personal items,” Brown said. “There was a lady out here who had a Beanie Baby that was pretty rare. Even though her car was completely flooded, she had to have that Beanie Baby.”
Some misfortunes can be hauled away by tow truck. With some work, they might even make somebody happy again. After some time in a garage, the BMW soaked to the floorboards might roll down a highway once more, thumbing its mechanical nose at Matthew.
To find a car
The Copart website, Copart.com, does not list the Hurricane Matthew vehicles separately, but it does include a section for vehicles with “water/flood” damage. Enter your ZIP code, and it will sort them by the ones closest to you, which will bring up the North Carolina vehicles. Also, you can use the search feature on the homepage to look for various makes and models available in North Carolina, then use the filter options to narrow your search to cars with “water/flood” damage.