Here's what happens after a tornado tears through a dealership
Heck, they were still looking for cars.
“There’s a pond down there,” General Manager Scott Fitzgerald said, pointing to a grassy area at one end of the dealership. “One of our cars may be in there. It’s a half mile down the road.”
Noe, wearing jeans and muddy boots, said it would be a long road cleaning up and starting over.
“The insurance doesn’t pay for all of this,” he said. “That’s a misnomer.” Besides the deductibles, a lot of equipment and future installation won’t be covered.
Four tornadoes struck Canton, a small city about 60 miles east of Dallas, on April 29. Noe got his first look at the wreckage the next day.
“The pictures do no justice to this,” he said. “Nothing is not bent or broken. There’s not one car without damage. The cars are just mangled — they’re in trees, they’re in ponds. Someone just called from a few miles away, one of our cars is in a pond. There’s just no end.”
Fitzgerald was still turning over the events of that Saturday in his mind. When the first tornado warning sounded, he knew what to do. He took his staff members from a temporary building they had been using for the last year, and walked to the gleaming new showroom and service center ready for its grand opening nine days later.
The five of them hunkered down as the tornado passed this city of about 3,500 people. Fitzgerald sent everyone home and was outside as the second twister arrived around 6:30 p.m.
It was eerily quiet as the dark sky opened.
“I looked up and it looked like moonlight was coming through. But it was not moonlight, because it was still daylight,” the Texas native recalled. “And the wind is going this way, and the clouds are going that way,” he said, pointing in opposite directions.
That means one thing: “Circulation.”
“I said, “Time to go,’ ran inside, locked everything as fast as I could, peeled out, went down the road as fast as I could. Two minutes later, people are calling me, telling me my dealership was destroyed,” Fitzgerald said.
The images of devastation on social media and in news reports didn’t fully prepare Noe and Fitzgerald for the hollowed-out showroom, missing service bays and twisted cars they would find the next day.
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As they stood at the site of a yearlong labor of love, the two men reflected on the past and looked toward the future, which includes rebuilding.
The dealership opened in January 2016 as an open point on the site of a defunct auto lot that had closed many years before, Fitzgerald said, with the intention of building from scratch.
“We were very excited about it,” said Noe, who has six dealerships in the area, including another Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram store. “We were a week from opening.”
A huge hit
Generally, he said, his dealerships had been spared from the worst of the extreme weather common here, including tornados and flooding. They have had some hail damage.
“This is our first real whippin’,” he said. “This is like getting knocked out in the first round.”
Still, Noe was philosophical in light of the four confirmed deaths and dozens of injuries caused by the series of tornadoes.
“This is just money and metal,” Noe said. “This is not loss of life or somebody getting a broken back or something.”
Fitzgerald said he later learned that motorists in two cars had fled to the dealership at the last minute and survived under the service bay’s awnings. Another motorist was swept off the highway and perished on the site, he was told.
But amid occasional flashes of humor and gratitude for the safety of his workers, Noe also worries about the future, given the magnitude of the financial damage.
Noe estimated the total loss in building and equipment at $10 million, plus another $5 million to $6 million for the new and used vehicles. Even with insurance, he said, “I’m going to take a huge financial hit.”
Noe said that he’s hoping for some help from the factory, which was initially slow to contact him after his store was destroyed.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles did not respond to requests for comment from Automotive News.
“We’re really counting on the help from the manufacturers to step in and help us with a lot of problems,” Noe said. “On day five, they were here for the first time.”
Noe said he doesn’t know what programs may be available from the factory, but there must be something, given the extreme weather hitting dealerships across the country.
“I would hope that these national corporations would have someone in place to come in and help their dealers,” he said.
Jackie Charniga contributed to this report.