Rental agencies rush cars to Houston to aid flood victims

HOUSTON -- Betina Wolfowicz's home was flooded as a result of Hurricane Harvey, but there was a tougher immediate challenge than lining up a repair crew: Tracking down a car to rent.

She says it took longer to find a rental car to temporarily replace the two vehicles she lost in the storm than it did to locate a contractor to start gutting her house’s water-soaked first floor in the Houston suburb of Bellaire.

The hunt for scarce rental cars is testing the patience of weary Texans. In a sprawling metropolis like Houston, having a car to drive can be essential. And insurance checks to replace lost vehicles may still be weeks away, leaving rentals as the most practical short-term transportation option.

Wolfowicz said she had to wait four days and go to two different rental agencies before she was finally back on the road in a mid-size SUV. “I know they are overwhelmed. But it is frustrating.’’

Rent-a-car companies and automakers are trying to cope with the deluge while shoring up their damaged fleets and hauling in replacements for cars lost to the hurricane:  

•Enterprise Holdings. The parent of the Alamo, Enterprise and National rent-a-car agencies has dispatched about 4,000 vehicles to southeast Texas and is planning to move in 17,000 more in the coming weeks, says spokeswoman Lisa Martini.

Martini says that Enterprise, which has over 6,400 locations in the U.S., brought in cars from such cities as Dallas and Denver.

To get more cars to the disaster zone, Enterprise is waiving one-way trip fees for vehicles rented as of Aug. 25 provided they are dropped off in Houston.

“This is something we’ve done before,’’ she said, “so when it (disaster) happens in a certain area in the U.S., our group operations gets on the phone (to see) who can spare cars.’’

•Avis Budget Group. The rental car company is “moving vehicles into the affected areas as quickly as possible to increase inventory to satisfy our customers’ needs,’’ spokeswoman Katie McCall said in an email, adding that the company is also working with corporate clients to get cars to those who’ve lost personal vehicles.

Avis and Budget renters in the Houston area will also not have to pay any extension fees, late penalties or one-way’ charges for not returning a vehicle to the location where they picked it up.

•Nissan. The automaker says it is trying to make more rental cars available through its Houston-area Nissan and Infiniti dealers.

Cars are being moved to staging areas, said Judy Wheeler, Nissan's U.S. sales chief. But it hasn't been easy because 56 dealerships in the flood areas were affected and have gradually been reopening. "We are prepared to do whatever they need us to do," Wheeler said. 

For some Texans, rental cars were not becoming available soon enough.

Jim Gwin, whose 2015 Ford Edge suffered electrical damage from water that leaked through his windshield, said it took his insurance company three days to locate a rental car for him.

Gwin, who is a Hertz Gold member, hoped that his customer loyalty might have helped speed up getting him into a car.

“But when you’re dealing with an insurance claim, everybody’s just a meatball,” Gwin said after picking up his rental Friday. Though, he added, “for what everybody else is going through, this is a really a small pain. I can’t really complain.”

 Wolfowicz lost both a Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Prius in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Her auto insurer connected her with Enterprise for a loaner on Tuesday soon after she put in her claim. Enterprise put her on a waiting list.

At the same time, a friend was able to find her worked to find her a rental car through Avis. But when she arrived for her reservation Friday morning at the Avis' counter in the Galleria area of Houston, there was no car waiting. Wolfowicz was told to come back at midday.

She was eventually placed in an SUV.  

Rental car agencies with locations in Southeast Texas are dealing with their own losses, since many vehicles that were rented before the storm are not going to make it back.

“We’re anticipating we lost several thousand vehicles,’’ said Martini, though she added that the company is still assessing it.

Madhani reported from Houston and Jones from New York

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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