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Storm brings hail of business: Body shops swamped by thousands of damaged cars; auto dealers suffer lots of damage

April 24, 2006

Bill Kellar had about 240 vehicles on his west-side car lot when hail swept through Indianapolis April 14.

Exactly two emerged unscathed, said the general sales manager for Palmer Dodge-Hyundai West.

On the east side, Blossom Chevrolet reported damage to 650 of its 700 cars and light trucks. Its collision shop is now booked for three months and busier than it's been in at least 25 years, said General Manager Mike Chase, who imported experts from as far away as Australia and South Africa to help.

That's the good news for car dealerships-some body shops are busier than they've been in a decade or more, as central Indiana residents bring in their hail-pocked cars for repairs. But the downside is, many cars that need fixing sat on their own, uncovered lots.

Insurance appraisers converged on dealer lots last week to assess storm damage. The dealers say insurance will help mitigate their losses. And they figure all the turmoil will help them sell a few cars.

Damage estimates from the storm were starting to trickle in last week too. Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance had received 3,349 central Indiana claims for car and home damage as of the morning of April 18. That translates into a conservative estimate of $4.3 million in losses, spokeswoman Liz Reynolds said.

Illinois-based Allstate Insurance had received 1,650 auto claims from central Indiana as of April 19, but spokeswoman Karen Spica said it was too early to place a dollar value on the damage.

Gary Kramer guesses that as many as 20 Indianapolis auto dealers and roughly 100,000 cars might have received damage from the storm. The owner of Mister Dent, a west-side paintless dent repair shop, faces 12- or 15-hour workdays until at least mid-June.

"There's so many hail-damaged vehicles on the ground it's silly," he said.

Storms swept across Indianapolis from the northwest to the southeast on April 14. They brought along hail the size of baseballs in some locations, said Joe Skowronek, a meteorologist with the Indianapolis office of the National Weather Service.

"You only see baseball-size hail ... once every three to five years in the state," he said. "It's pretty unusual to see something like that."

Dealers in several parts of the city watched smaller, golf-ball-size hail bombard their lots as well.

Nearly every car on the lot of Bud Wolf Chevrolet at 54th Street and Keystone sustained damage, said dealer Andy Wolf. He figures the storm caused roughly $250,000 in damage.

Andy Mohr Nissan saw some of that baseball-size hail, Service Manager Walter Naylor said. He reported damage to 345 of its 360 vehicles. That included flood damage to about 10 cars when a retention pond backed up into part of the lot.

"We're pretty much helpless unless we want to build a dome over our dealership and lot," said Walter Naylor, the service manager there.

Several dealers said they would either offer discounts on damaged cars or pay for repairs with insurance money. They must disclose the damage to prospective buyers if it exceeds 3 percent of the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

Dealerships with body shops are already seeing a sharp increase in business to help offset their own hail losses.

About 150 cars came through Palmer Collision in the first few days of last week. It normally sees about 35 cars in an entire week, said Tom Martz, an estimator there.

Because of the surge in demand at some collision centers, cars that sustained light damage might have to wait months for help.

Blossom normally has 40 to 50 technicians working in the body shop, but Chase started bringing in extra help from around the country-and the world.

He recruited paintless dent repair technicians from Oklahoma, Nebraska, New York and even New Zealand. He said these technicians use hundreds of varieties of tools to reverse the stretch in a car's metal exterior without damaging the paint.

He called their technique an "art form of repairing a car," and he said he searched globally "because we want the best of the best to take care of our cars."

Mister Dent's Kramer said he could probably keep 100 technicians busy now. He had enough work for just 10 before the storm.

Paintless dent repair can cost $1,000 to $3,000 per vehicle. That could translate into as much as $300 million in business if Kramer's estimate of 100,000 hail-damaged vehicles proves correct.

"This storm, I think, is going to be very beneficial to Indianapolis for people in the collision business," he said.

And it might even help sell cars. Shoppers might hit the lots in hopes of getting a bargain on damaged cars or to replace their own damaged vehicle, Kellar said.

He said the storm could have been worse. He remembers a 1996 hailstorm that left some cars totaled.

"In '96, we were lucky to have a car on the lot that actually had a window in it," he said.

Individual car owners can protect their exposed vehicles by covering them with a blanket. But dealers would be hard-pressed to protect every car on their lot that way, Kellar said. He sees only one way to prepare.

"You can pray a lot," he said.
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