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Friday, 21 February 2014 00:10

Polar Vortex Continues to Plague Southern States in Late January and Early February

As predicted, the polar vortex that wrought havoc at the beginning of the year strengthened and continued moving southward in late January, resulting in more unusually low temperatures and icy winds. This winter storm system impacted most of the country with 34 states being under some sort of winter weather warning or advisory during the last week of the month.

While residents in the northern states are more accustomed to harsh winter precipitation, areas in the south were left floundering at the unusual phenomenon of snow and ice that poured down in states that generally enjoy much milder winters. This abnormal weather system raised a lot of concern and caused significant damage in many southern metropolitan areas, particularly in Atlanta, GA, and Birmingham, AL, where the combination of weather and traffic congestion contributed to a surge of accidents.

Beginning on Tuesday, January 28 and continuing well into the next day, snow and ice accumulating in the southeast brought Atlanta to a screeching halt. While the city normally averages a low temperature of 28 degrees and a high of 49 degrees in January, temperatures plummeted into the teens during the last week of January with up to three inches of snow in some places. Slick conditions created by ice and sleet led to accidents which, in turn, caused an increase in traffic delays. Many cars were left abandoned on the roads and highways after running out of gas due to sitting in the long-standing traffic, while other vehicles were parked in lots as their owners attempted to wait out the storm—in fact, many people are comparing the dismal images to scenes from the first season of TV’s “The Walking Dead!”

Glenn Grey, owner of Grey’s Auto Collision in Hiram, GA, and his wife experienced the effects of the storm first hand. “My wife left home at 11:30am to pick our child up from school, and though it’s normally a 35-minute drive, she didn’t reach the school until 5pm. She was further delayed by traffic and didn’t get home until after 11pm, nearly 12 hours after she left!”

Meanwhile, Grey closed his shop at noon after seeing the travesty on the roads, but he regrets not sending his employees home earlier. On his drive home, Grey saw many vehicles stuck in the snow drifts, and he and others, true to the southern tradition of aiding neighbors in need, helped pull these vehicles out.

Grey says, “I saw some pretty bad wrecks, a lot of which were caused by people just not knowing how to drive in the snow and ice because we’re not all that used to it down here. People were throwing down kitty litter for traction, and some people ran out of gas while they were sitting in traffic.”

In terms of how the storm has impacted his business, Grey has seen an increase of 20–25% in volumes, but about 25–30% of the damaged vehicles are being declared total losses. “We are seeing a little bit of everything, both small and large repairs that may be just a bumper or window, or it could be the whole side of the vehicle from the front fender all the way to the quarter panel.”

Fortunately, Grey hasn’t had any problems with his machinery, other than the paint booth as bake cycle times are being affected by the low temperatures.

Rusty Ravia, Manager of D & I Body Shop in Atlanta, GA, notes that he and his employees spent a night in the shop, working until 2am Tuesday and not leaving until 2pm on Wednesday.

“We’ve seen a slowdown with repairs because the insurance companies are taking their time to come out, and we’ve also seen some steering as insurers tell customers that estimates will take less time at DRP shops. They are also estimating parts at my cost and cutting corners on repair hours, so who’s paying the shop bills? We are trying to stay positive and get business because the goal is to make our customers happy and try to make things as easy as possible by being honest with them.”

Ravia notes that D & I Body Shop is seeing larger repairs with many vehicles being declared total losses before his technicians ever touch them, so the shop is losing money when the insurers take work away and only compensate the shop for storage fees. The shop has seen an increase in volumes of approximately 20% after the storm, but since they aren’t equipped for the weather and their materials are not accustomed to the cold, their paint cycle time has also increased, making it a challenge to paint and refinish these vehicles on schedule.

At Kong’s Body Shop in Atlanta, GA, volumes have at least doubled, according to Manager Norm Kong. Says Kong, “we have experienced more technical difficulties with some of our machines freezing up. We lost electricity, and our compressors were also impacted by the low temperatures. The shop was forced to close for a couple days, too, which put us behind schedule with repairs so there has been both good and bad aspects to the storm for our business.”

Several Atlanta shops that were contacted are so busy with the backlog of work resulting from the storm that they were unable to discuss the weather’s impact on their businesses.

The scene in Birmingham, AL was similar to that in Atlanta with many accidents resulting from the ice leading to more traffic jams. In an area with average January temperatures between 34 and 54 degrees, the drop into the low-twenties elicited more than a bit of chaos throughout the city.

Wally Newton, Manager at Highway 280 Paint and Body in Birmingham, notes “the storm is affecting us quite a bit so far and growing daily as people retrieve their vehicles from tow yards, so we’ve seen an increase in volumes with lots of estimates being written up. Luckily though, we haven’t had any problems with our machinery malfunctioning because of the weather.”

At Checker Auto Body Repair in Huntsville, AL, Manager Bill Goebel said “our volume has decreased roughly 25% due to school [and other business] closings; fewer people driving during the course of the day equals fewer accidents. The only problem we’re seeing is an extreme propane shortage, and since our shop is heated with propane, we have had to shorten our work days.”

Checker Auto Body has not yet experienced any other technical difficulties or problems with equipment, “except having to sub-out cleanups because we have no indoor cleaning facility and everything outside is frozen!”

For Ginger Lowrey, a member of the family that owns River Chase Collision in Birmingham, the biggest problem is an increased amount of insurer steering since her shop does not participate in any DRPs. “We have had more than an average amount of steering,” she explains.

“On February 5th, one of our regular customers called to say the insurance company was towing his car to another shop because they couldn’t send an estimator to River Chase Collision until the 13th, but when I phoned my contact at Allstate, she told me that she was assigned to view the car on the 7th, nearly a week earlier than my customer was told. I’m glad we resolved that problem, but our customer is very angry that his insurance company lied to him. Our shop isn’t backed up at all whereas the other shop may be. The insurer isn’t helping the customer since that would mean paying for a rental car even longer. The whole situation makes me worry about how much steering is really going on.”

In regards to the increase in delays for insurers to write estimates for shops not on their DRPs, Lowrey believes “there’s no limitation to what they will do, and most of the time, they get away with it. We need to change people’s mindsets so they understand that the person who owns the vehicle is in charge, not the insurer. All too frequently, shops cut corners, putting families at risk, because they’ve made a deal with the devil and money makes good people do bad things. This unfortunate weather-related event is making it worse because a lot of repairs are needed to restore normalcy to those who were impacted, but the insurance companies are making empty promises and consumers are uneducated. We’re in a sad state right now in this industry, yet it’s hard to reach people when the insurers have deep pockets and so much influence with lobbyists. People tend to turn a blind eye to what’s right for the consumer.”

Due to the storm, River Chase Collision is busier than normal with at least twice the amount of work they usually have at this time of year. Because they closed early on the 28th and stayed closed on the 29th, the shop opened on Saturday, February 1 to accommodate their workload.

Lowrey says that they are “receiving different types of repairs. Only a few have structural damage—the repairs we’re getting are mostly aesthetic, small damages to bumpers and doors from slipping and sliding on the ice. It was kind of like bumper cars out there! We can flip these repairs quickly, though, if the insurers get on with their business. I don’t work for them, but I’ll work with them to get the consumer taken care of as quickly as possible.”

Forecasts for February indicate the Polar Vortex may finally be letting up in the southern region of the US, but the Northeast and Midwest can expect the icy winds and snow accumulation to continue through February.

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