For those looking for rental vehicles because of Monday's tornado damage in the region, the choices are slim to none, according to local car rental agencies.
“This is the worst storm-related rush for cars I’ve seen since I started here in 1989,” said Lori Merrell, rental manager of Hertz in Decatur. “I feel sad for all these people losing their cars, even temporarily."
Tornadoes touched down in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan County on Monday evening, and several areas were pounded with hail.
Many vehicles in the Cullman area were pelted with baseball-size hail. Insurance companies are scrambling to find vehicles for their policyholders to drive while the damaged vehicles are repaired.
Mitch Smith Chevrolet and Tony Serra Nissan in Cullman had more than 400 vehicles sustain hail damage, according to media reports. Employee cars at the Walmart Distribution Center in Cullman also were damaged. Hail and falling trees damaged cars in Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence County, too.
The spillover for rental demand has hit the area. A couple of conventions in Huntsville and spring break this week are squeezing the rental car market even more, agents said.
Wednesday afternoon, Merrell said her business had its fleet of 50 vehicles rented and more than 15 people on a waiting list. The list is growing every day, she said. She said employees returned their company-issued cars, and those vehicles have been rented.
“Calls began at 8 o’clock Tuesday morning, and they haven’t stopped,” she said.
She said people weren’t choosy about what size vehicles they wanted to rent.
“People just need wheels,” Merrell said. “Presently, we won’t have anything to rent out until March 29, and that’s if the vehicles are returned then.”
Wednesday afternoon, she said her company, located on the Beltline, had one rental vehicle on the lot, a 2018 Nissan Sienna minivan, but it is reserved for this weekend. She said most of the insurance replacement rentals are usually for about 20 days.
Merrell said demand spiked Sept. 11, 2001, when the government ordered commercial passenger jets grounded following the terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
A corporate Enterprise spokeswoman said the company plans to move in up to 500 rental vehicles in the next few days. The Decatur Enterprise location on Sixth Avenue Southeast had no rental vehicles available.
"We have the ability to move more cars in and out of nearby areas in order to meet overall demand, if necessary,” said Lisa Martini, of Enterprise Holdings. “Currently, we’ve added about 250 vehicles to our fleet in Cullman and anticipate that to increase to about 500 total between Cullman and Decatur by the end of the week.”
Martini said the company works closely with specialized agencies to provide transportation needs.
“At times, we work with insurance catastrophe teams as well as the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure they have vehicles when they get in to an area so they can assess damage as soon as possible and get local residents back into their homes and cars again,” she said.
Local Budget/Avis station manager Misty Luke said they are out of vehicles. “We were actually out Monday morning because of a large military conference in Huntsville,” she said. “But we’ve had a number of calls since the storm.”
She could not say when vehicles would be available. “We’re a satellite branch for our office at the (Huntsville International) airport,” she said.
One Decatur body shop owner said he expects demand for repair services to increase in the next few weeks.
“It’s really too early in the game for us to see a rush,” said Tony Shankle, owner of Performance Automotive body shop on West Moulton Street. “I’ve had a few calls about storm damage. I suspect the Cullman body shops will get slammed and requests for body work will move into our area in a couple of weeks.
"It takes time for the cars to be inspected by insurance companies and then work ordered. Some of the cars I’m seeing on the news will be totaled out.”