What Happens to Vehicles After Natural Disasters?

The frequency of natural disasters has been rising, and with it, their associated costs. According to this report by climate.gov, there have been 24 confirmed weather disaster events in the US in 2023 alone, with losses exceeding $1 billion each. This is a stark contrast to figures from 1980 to 1989, where only 33 weather events exceeded the $1 billion loss benchmark.

Following this trend, we can infer that natural disasters may become an eventuality rather than a mere case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This increased risk also highlights the importance of understanding the link between vehicle damage, natural disasters, and knowing the steps to take, including collision repair.

In this article, we’ll delve into:

  • How natural disasters affect vehicles.
  • The steps to take right after the disaster.
  • Available options for vehicles declared totaled.
  • Caliber’s disaster response and processes.

Part One: Understanding Vehicle Damage and Natural Disasters

Nobody wants to have to go through significant property loss. Vehicles count among the most at-risk personal properties during a natural calamity because they are often just as exposed as our homes. Before we delve into what happens to cars in the wake of a natural disaster, it’s paramount that we ensure that we are equipped for emergencies. Make sure you have a complete car emergency kit handy, and try to avoid danger as best you can.

We cannot stress enough the importance of disaster preparedness and how it is a significant factor in surviving a natural disaster and recovering from substantial property loss. First, we must understand the risk we’re facing.

Common Natural Disasters in the United States


Hurricanes are powerful tropical cyclones that form over warm ocean waters. They are characterized by strong winds, heavy rainfall, and storm surges. These storms can cause extensive damage, including flooding, wind damage, and coastal erosion. In the United States, hurricanes are most likely to occur along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The Gulf Coast, which includes the states of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, is particularly susceptible to hurricane activity.


Tornadoes are violent, narrow, rotating air columns extending from the base of severe thunderstorms to the ground. Tornadoes create incredibly high winds that can tear apart buildings and vehicles and turn objects into projectiles. They are most likely to occur in the central plains of North America, east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Appalachian Mountains. However, with the right conditions, tornadoes can occur in any state in the US at any time.


Floods occur when water overflows onto normally dry land. They can stem from heavy rainfall, dam failures, and melting snow. Floods are widespread throughout the United States, with coastal areas and regions near major rivers being particularly vulnerable. States like Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi are prone to coastal flooding, while the Midwest and areas along the Mississippi River can experience river flooding.


Wildfires are uncontrolled fires that spread rapidly through vegetation. Wildfires can burn forests, homes, and infrastructure, often consuming tens of thousands of acres. The resulting smoke can cause eye and respiratory tract infections, heart failure, and even premature death. Wildfires are most likely to occur in the western United States, including Alaska, Arizona, and Colorado. Dry climate and abundant vegetation make these regions susceptible to wildfires, especially during Summer.


Earthquakes occur when the Earth's tectonic plates shift, causing the ground to shake. In the United States, earthquakes are most likely to occur along the Pacific Ring of Fire, particularly in California, Alaska, and Washington. Earthquakes can vary in intensity and damage buildings, roads, and infrastructure, particularly in urban areas.

Natural Disasters and Their Impact on Vehicles

Damage from Strong Winds

The extent of vehicular damage from strong winds varies from dents and scratches to severe structural damage. Strong winds — like those from hurricanes and tornadoes — generate enough wind force to blow objects around, turning them into projectiles. They can also flip vehicles over. Strong tornadoes can even throw cars into the air with ease.

Water Damage

Floods are a primary concern for vehicle owners because of the water damage they cause. They cause more harm than any other weather disaster, with an average of $5 billion yearly in property damage. Floods are incredibly destructive to vehicles and can wreak havoc on engines, transmissions, interiors, and many electrical systems. A vehicle with significant flood damage typically ends up as a total loss.

Fire Damage

Wildfires will damage your vehicle even without direct contact. Fire damage doesn’t only include damage caused by exposure to extreme heat. Wildfire smoke can also cause several problems for your car because it carries smoke, ash, and soot, which can contaminate your air filtration system. A contaminated air filtration system affects the cabin's air quality and engine performance because of reduced airflow.

Wildfire smoke can also carry corrosive particles, which can eat away at your vehicle's paint and affect various sensors. Cars that suffer fire damage are typically considered a total loss. That’s because fire can engulf and burn a vehicle entirely, and the smoke can affect multiple systems to an extent where the repair cost may exceed the vehicle's value.

Earthquake Damage

High-magnitude earthquakes cause significant damage to structures, causing debris, trees, and even buildings to collapse onto vehicles. The shaking of the ground can sometimes be intense enough to tip cars over, especially when parked on an incline.

These risks can all cause frame damage, severely impacting your vehicle's safety, functionality, and value. Vehicles crushed by large, heavy objects are typically deemed a total loss because of the extent and severity of structural damage.

Hail Damage

Hail stones can become large enough to land on your vehicle with enough kinetic force to shatter glass and dent your vehicle’s exterior. In severe cases, hail storms can cover your vehicle in dents, often rendering repair costs higher than your vehicle’s actual cash value (ACV), which is the amount someone would reasonably pay for your vehicle when it was in pre-disaster condition.

Crucial Steps To Take After a Natural Disaster

Ensure Personal Safety

Before anything else, check yourself and those around you for any injuries. Ensure everyone is accounted for. Be cautious of hazards like downed power lines and unstable structures. Make sure to listen to local authorities and follow safety instructions. If able, move your vehicle to a safe location where you can mitigate further damage.

Contact Emergency Services If Necessary

Contact emergency services if you or anyone around you is in a life-threatening situation. Doing so ASAP is essential, considering the likelihood that emergency services are going to be overwhelmed with requests.

Document Damage to Your Vehicle

Damage documentation is critical in filing insurance claims as it serves as proof of the extent of damage to your vehicle. Take clear photographs and note any visible damage, such as dents, scratches, and structural damage.

Contact Your Insurance Provider

Reach out to your insurance provider and report the damage to your vehicle, including the documentation. A prompt report is essential to fulfill policy requirements and because it is necessary for timely assessment and claims processing. This is especially crucial, considering insurance claims take time to process after a widespread disaster.

Filing an Insurance Claim After a Natural Disaster

Initiating the Claims Process: Contact Your Insurance Company

Contacting your insurance company will always be the first step in initiating an insurance claim. Make sure to include details about the incident, including the following:

  • Policy Information
  • Contact Information
  • Date and location
  • Description of the incident
  • Documentation
  • List of damaged items
  • Vehicle information

Truthful descriptions facilitate the processing of claims because they help expedite the process and pave the way for a fair and accurate assessment.

Filing a Claim: Providing Necessary Documentation

Pictures and videos of your vehicle before and after the incident will serve as your primary documentation, as they are the most straightforward and apparent proof. Ensure your vehicle's damage is visible in your pictures and videos. Add notes to highlight key details in your pictures and videos. Your insurance provider will also specify which additional documents or information you may need to provide.

You will likely fill out a form detailing the extent of the damages sustained by your vehicle. You will also be required to pay your insurance deductible — a previously agreed-on amount you’ll have to pay out of pocket before the insurance company moves forward with the claims process.

Damage Assessment: Working with Adjusters

Once a claim has been filed and deductibles have been settled, your insurance company will assign an adjuster to your case.

Adjusters are tasked with reviewing incident details and verifying the driver’s insurance policy coverage and their documentation of the incident. Adjusters examine photographs, videos, and other variables, such as police or rescue reports, to determine the applicable policy coverage for damages.

Adjusters will also document the damage to your vehicle and calculate the repair cost.

Understanding Coverage and Potential Deductibles

The general principle governing insurance policies is that insurance companies will cover the cost of repairs but only up to the limit prescribed in your insurance policy. The repair cost to be covered by your insurance provider depends on the extent of your insurance coverage.

Comprehensive auto insurance covers up to the current market value of your vehicle. However, suppose your vehicle is declared a total loss. In that case, your insurance provider will issue a payment equivalent to your vehicle’s actual cash value before it sustained damage, minus your deductible (the amount the policyholder shoulders for each time they file a claim).

What Type of Auto Insurance Covers Natural Disasters?

Many types of car insurance — each with its coverage focus — allow car owners to select a policy that suits their needs. However, comprehensive insurance is the only type covering damage caused by natural disasters. Car owners can also purchase multiple insurance types. When comprehensive coverage is purchased with collision insurance, it is sometimes called “full coverage insurance.”

Note: While you can purchase comprehensive coverage anytime, they do not apply retroactively and typically have a coverage delay. This means you won’t benefit from buying comprehensive insurance right before a hurricane hits your area.

Repairs and Salvage

The Post-Disaster Repair or Salvage Dilemma

Once you’ve gotten your vehicle inspected after a natural disaster, there’s a good chance that your vehicle may be declared a total loss. This happens when the cost of repairs may exceed the value of your car or a total loss threshold set by the state.

For example, in Arkansas, if the repair cost exceeds 70% of the vehicle’s actual cash value, it may be declared a total loss.

When an insurance provider declares a vehicle as a total loss, there are typically two things that can happen:

  1. Your insurance provider will offer you payment for your vehicle’s actual cash value minus your insurance deductible. In exchange for this payment, you’ll have to transfer ownership of your car to the insurance company, which will also be responsible for applying for a salvage title.

    For example, if your vehicle’s ACV is $18,000, and your insurance deductible is $500, your insurance company will give you a check for $17,500. In return, you transfer vehicle ownership to your insurance company.

  2. In some states, car owners may choose to keep their vehicles. At this point, you’ll need to apply for a salvage title. Your insurance provider will still offer payment for your vehicle’s actual cash value but will instead deduct your vehicle’s salvage value from your total payout.

    For example, If your vehicle’s ACV before being declared a total loss was $18,000 and its current salvage value is $5,000, your insurance company will give you a $13,000 check and your totaled vehicle.

Note: You’ll have to shoulder the repair costs, and you won’t be allowed to legally drive a totaled vehicle without getting it repaired to a road-worthy condition. Moreover, it will be more challenging to secure an insurance policy on a salvaged vehicle, and it will be even harder to sell.

Choosing an Auto Repair Shop or Mechanic

Although car insurance companies will always recommend a specific repair shop, car owners can select an auto repair shop or mechanic they want. If you decide to go this route, it’s essential to follow these tips on choosing a repair shop to make an informed decision with the best possible chance of a fair and reliable repair.

However, working with a repair shop recommended by your insurance companies also yields a faster service because your insurance company will likely have a running direct repair program (DRP) with the repair shop they recommend. Repairs, paperwork, and payment will typically be faster. Some auto repair shops also prioritize DRP partners, saving you significant time, considering repair requests tend to flood following a natural disaster.

Moreover, working with an insurance-recommended repair shop can come with a lifetime repair warranty. While these are standard with DRP partners, confirming the warranty before starting repairs is best. Caliber works with all major insurance providers for a seamless process, helping our customers get their vehicles back on the road as soon as possible.

Part Two: Post-Disaster Caliber Processes and Response

Floods and Hurricanes

We temporarily delay scheduling or towing in the aftermath of floods and hurricanes, as many vehicles may sustain significant damage. In severe cases, we also establish a designated flood center to help streamline the process. Some insurance companies may also organize drive-in events to expedite the estimation process. We recommend contacting and coordinating with your insurance provider in securing a Caliber assignment, as we want to ease the process for our customers as best we can.

When we receive assignments, our dedicated team assesses the extent of the damage and inspects the affected vehicles. Some assignments to Caliber may be canceled as our Direct Repair Program (DRP) partners estimate and declare vehicles as beyond repair. We highly recommend working with your insurance company to get the repair process started. Washing your vehicle before bringing it to Caliber, if possible, will also facilitate the inspection process.

We understand the urgency of getting back on the road, but we advise against immediately renting a vehicle, as repair timelines can be unpredictable during these times. Many unforeseeable factors can impact the repair process.

Tornado/Hail Damage

When responding to tornado and hail damage, we need an assignment from your insurance company to facilitate vehicle assessment repair. Most of our partners typically refer the estimate process to a paintless dent repair (PDR) vendor or catastrophe (CAT) team. For the quickest service, we strongly recommend working with your insurance company.

We typically open hail scheduling if your vehicle is still drivable after hail damage. All hail-damaged vehicles are scheduled for an estimate, wherein we determine the hail repair level and whether PDR or conventional repair is required. Our hail centers typically open about two weeks after the event date, as setting up hail response centers and operations takes time.

Our repair centers will schedule drop-off appointments after the estimate is completed and may implement a waitlist during high-demand periods. If you arrive at Caliber with a pre-written estimate from an external source, we'll schedule an "Estimate" appointment to review the estimate before proceeding with repairs.

Glass and Non-Driveable Vehicles

Glass damage is one of the primary reasons a vehicle may be deemed non-drivable. Glass damage can be particularly challenging to address during large hail events. We recommend visiting one of our locations to have your broken windshield and windows "crash-wrapped" to keep out the weather and avoid further damage to your vehicle.

If your vehicle's damage is limited to the glass, we may recommend our specialized glass service. We suggest washing your vehicle before bringing it to Caliber to facilitate the process. Additionally, some insurance companies organize drive-in events to initiate the estimate process, so reaching out to your insurance company for information during these events can be very helpful.

[h3] Snow/Ice

Most customers stay off the road during heavy snow conditions. There is usually limited customer interaction, most of which is primarily focused on responding to center closures. Your safety remains our top priority, and we encourage you to stay safe and avoid unnecessary travel during such weather conditions. If you have any questions or concerns, don't hesitate to contact our team for assistance.

Final Words

Customer safety is a key focus when we offer our technical expertise and thorough services, especially in times of need. Visit our Shop Talk blog for more safety and insurance tips, and learn more about how Caliber can help you get the most out of your vehicle.