Throw out the hurricane playbook. Texans won't abide being afoot.
Houstonians and other Texans simply skipped the traditional post-hurricane sales lull and stormed dealerships to replace flooded-out rides in September, sparking 2017's first monthly U.S. auto sales gain.
Houston wasn't the only reason for the 6.1 percent increase in U.S. volume last month -- Ford Motor Co. sales czar Mark LaNeve said Tuesday the Houston surge contributed less than a third of the automaker's national gain. But Houston led the charge.
Hurricanes happen. And sometimes the U.S. Atlantic or Gulf Coasts get whacked. This year was the first time two Category 4 or worse hurricanes hit the U.S. mainland the same year, let alone a Harvey in late August and an Irma in September.
But while when and where are chance, hurricanes aren't a surprise. And the auto industry knows how to cope with the awful aftermath.
There's a playbook that has evolved over the years. For the last 30 years, data guru Mitchell Phillips of Urban Science has studied the effects of hurricanes on auto sales. Every storm is different, but the sales pattern is fairly standard, driven by the pace of dealerships restocking and insurers settling claims.
After a hurricane makes landfall, local auto sales fall in the first 30 days, then surge upward to a peak after 60 to 90 days, and gradually taper back to normal after 12 to 18 months.
Even while Harvey was still dumping rain on Houston in late August, Phillips said he anticipated some fresh wrinkles from Harvey. More victims, more rain, more flooding, more damage from water than wind, he said then.
Weeks later, there was widespread catastrophe from both storms, but for the auto industry, Harvey is indeed the outlier. Irma damaged huge numbers of homes throughout Florida, but relatively few light vehicles because Floridians largely drove their vehicles out of the storm's path.
More Houstonians rode out the storm in place. It made landfall well to the south and the winds slowed significantly before it reached Houston. But it stalled and dumped up to 50 inches of rain on one of the flattest towns you can name.
Take my son for an example. He's lived there long enough to be wary of storm surges. He knew the elevation of his homestead to the exact foot -- 30 feet for his home and 19 for his parking spot, so he wasn't worried by a forecast of a six -to 12-foot storm surge. "And the creek behind us has never topped 18 feet," he told us before the storm.
But he was awakened before dawn by a neighbor asking "Is that your car outside?" Sure enough, the creek had crested at 22 feet. He was dry. His Ford Focus was a total loss. He had plenty of company.
By the time most floodwaters had drained by Labor Day weekend, perhaps 400,000 to 500,000 other vehicles were also write-offs.
Our son dutifully called his insurer, which agreed his car was a goner, and had it hauled off within days. Our son expected the wait for a check was going to be more like 90 days rather than 60, and was just hoping to buy a replacement by Thanksgiving. He flew to visit my wife and me in New Mexico and drove back in our second car.
Houston, a sprawling metro area larger than New Jersey, is a bad place to be without a car. Public transit is rudimentary. From the end of April until October, more days than not, the temperature and humidity both top 90.
By the hurricane handbook, things were looking grim. Like cowboys without horses, Houstonians weren't having it.
So the town -- and dealers, lenders and automakers -- threw away the handbook and went rogue. After all, this is a town where the typical response to a complaint is, "hey, cowboy up."
On Sept. 12, two days after returning in a borrowed Jeep, our son got a call from the Baytown Ford salesman who had sold him his Focus with a tempting offer on a new pickup.
I haven't settled my claim yet, our son said. No problem, just bring what paperwork you have. We have plenty of factory spiffs and you don't even need a down payment, came the reply. Six hours later, six days after his dead car was towed away, he drove out in a new 2017 F-150 XL Supercab, with almost $10,000 off the sticker.
How was that possible? Because all over town the industry cut red tape and took enterprise.
The dealership reopened quickly, hustled some inventory from other stores outside the flood zone, hit the phones, cut red tape, cut deals and got rid of a bunch of remaining 2017 models.
The salesman worked the phone to find people who needed new rides.
The lender, in this case Ford Motor Credit, suspended payments for victims, waived paperwork and worked to keep customers in new deals.
Pickups tend to have some big spiffs anyhow, but Ford decided to offer employee pricing to flood victims. LaNeve said Tuesday that 5,000 Texas units were sold on that basis alone in September.
Scrapping the old playbook was good business, but also driven by competition. In trucky Texas, Houston is the biggest pickup market. Our son was determined to buy a pickup from somebody. Baytown Ford found him first.