Nature’s car wash is free on the front end, but often expensive on the back.

Hundreds of vehicles in the Lower Rio Grande Valley are in repair shops, and many are going to stay a while, thanks to the heavy street flooding and drivers who tested the elements and lost.

“I think everybody’s got at least 50, so it’s pretty bad,” Tony Lopez, sales manager for Cadillacs at Luke Fruias Motors in Brownsville, said of his dealership and others in the city.

“It messes up the system. If it gets in the engine, it messes up the engine,” he added. “If it gets inside the vehicle, it will mess up some modules that will cause malfunctions and shorts. Cars aren’t very waterproof, by any means.”

The reason for all this mayhem 10 days ago was record-shattering rainfall in many cities here in the Lower Valley.

Brownsville’s 8.09 inches on Oct. 1 more than tripled the previous record of 2.44 inches set on that date in 1958. The city’s two-day total of 10.42 inches ranked 10th-highest all-time, and that includes rainfall from hurricanes.

Harlingen’s 7.97 inches that fell the same day obliterated its all-time record for the date of 1.43 inches set in 1998, the National Weather Service in Brownsville reported.

San Benito recorded 5.5 inches and Los Fresnos had 4.99 inches.

And the roadways, and the cars and drivers on them, just couldn’t cope.

‘It’s crazy’

The visuals were spectacular, with hard-charging cars hitting water pooled on the outside lanes of streets and roads, sending white-plumed sprays of rainwater 15 to 20 feet in the air.

“It’s crazy. It was crazy how many people who were driving through the water like they didn’t care, they didn’t understand they were going to get stranded,” said Bob Alvarez, owner of Big Bob’s Garage on Paredes Line Road in Brownsville.

“They were passing by here, especially the 18-wheelers, and they were shoving water up into the shop, probably 10 feet into the shop,” Alvarez recalled. “I had the garage doors open because we were looking at all the action, of people passing by and getting stranded.”

Alvarez has one water-damaged vehicle he’s working on. Andrea Garcia, daughter of owner Tony Garcia at Double A Wrecker Service on Jackson Street in Harlingen, said she has two.

“I have one that’s a no-start, it won’t even start or won’t even crank,” she said. “And I have one that her car, she ran it through the water and it does turn on, but she literally has all of the lights on in the dash, her dashboard.”

“It’s reading check power steering system, its reading check charging system, it’s really everything,” she added. “That one to me is going to be more of an electrical issue, to where possibly all of her wiring got wet, like for her computer and what-not. Best thing to do with something like that is let it dry out. Everything has to dry out, it’s going to just have to dry out and when everything dries, and its evaporated, then we can proceed from there and check everything else.”

Computer problems

As anybody who has been clumsy with a glass of iced tea or wine near their laptop at home understands completely, computers and moisture are deadly enemies.

And today’s cars and trucks are more dependent than ever on delicate electronics.

“They can run through puddles but when you submerge it halfway and it gets into areas it is not supposed to get into, obviously it’s going to cause issues,” Lopez said. “When you drive through it, sometimes you let go of the gas and water goes into the muffler and causes all kinds of issues there, too.”

As Big Bob notes, more than electronics can be damaged by driving through flooded roadways. Like how about needing a new engine?

“First thing we do is yank the plugs out and see if it will crank over,” Alvarez said. “If it doesn’t crank over, we’ll put a wrench on it and turn it manually. If we can’t turn it manually, its locked up and needs a new motor. I’ve seen it a bunch of times.”

Big Bob’s Garage automotive repair shop owner and certified mechanic Bob Alvarez removes ignition engine coils from a Hyundai that incurred engine failure damage from recent flooding due to torrential rainfall in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

About that insurance

Tito Resendez owns one of the largest insurance agencies in the Lower Valley, and his State Farm Insurance business in Harlingen has been busy.

He said as of Tuesday morning, he had 37 claims for water damage which had been filed by policyholders — four for water damage to homes and, you guessed it, 33 for damage to vehicles.

“We don’t have specifics, but we do know they were damaged somehow, either driving and they stalled, or stationary in the water on roads around it, but I’m sure there’s a combination of both of them going on,” Resendez said. “We have 33 car claims, so it’s very manageable at this point, but very serious for the individual who is going through it, for sure.”

If you had the right kind of policy, you might be entitled to a rental car while yours is being repaired, he said. If you can find a rental car, that is.

“If you have rental coverage, you’ll get a car, as long as the rental companies don’t run out of cars,” Resendez said. “I was on a conference call this morning at 10 a.m., and they gave us an update and they said the rental companies are struggling a bit. But it was such a widespread storm that we’re being told they’re putting their plans into place and they’ll have  rental cars available as needed. We hope.”

The bottom line, said Luke Fruias’ Lopez, is people need to put the brakes on when weather conditions become dangerous for driving. Maybe even the parking brake while the vehicle sits in the driveway.

“Down here in the Valley, we don’t know how to drive in rain, it’s an unfortunate fact,” Lopez said. “All of a sudden we’re like, you throw a German shepherd in the middle of the pool that never swam, and all of a sudden they freak out. That’s how we are.”