After record rainfall, travelers return to BWI to find waterlogged vehicles

After dragging his golf clubs and luggage off a shuttle bus in long-term parking near BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport on Wednesday afternoon, Leroy Donahue took several quick strides over to his shiny black Tesla Model S and peered through the window.

The 77-year-old Arlington, Va., resident then circled his pricey high-tech electric car and, opening the hatchback, watched as water poured out.


"Yep," he said, nodding to his travel buddy, Alain Labeau of Potomac.

Just as he had suspected, his car — just 14 months old and still parked where he left it before heading off on a golf trip to Maine— had not been spared by the record-setting rainfall that dropped more than 6 inches on the airport and more than 10 inches on other parts of the region on Tuesday, leaving vehicles flooded in lots and on roadways all over.


"For a couple extra bucks, I could have parked inside, but you never think of getting torrential rain," Donahue said.

Across Maryland and much of the Northeast on Wednesday, homeowners dialed insurers about flooded basements, while vehicle owners called insurers and mechanics about water in engines and interiors. Welaine Memenza, AAA Mid-Atlantic's agency sales manager for the state, said insurance claims were pouring in Wednesday for property damage in homes.

"I'm sure we're getting some auto, too," she said.

Dozens of vehicles in two long-term parking lots at BWI were partially submerged after rising waters overwhelmed nearby stormwater culverts. Dozens more were driven into standing or rushing water on roadways, forcing first responders into rescue boats to pull passengers to safety.

Lt. Russ Davies, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, said his agency conducted more than two dozen water rescues in the Linthicum, Brooklyn Park, Pasadena and Glen Burnie areas in just three hours Tuesday afternoon.

After the rains stopped, the water receded quickly. Muddy mulch-and-stick-strewn debris was left behind, along with damaged cars.

"We have a Mitsubishi that is here right now," said Chris Brown, car care manager at the AAA Mid-Atlantic auto shop in Glen Burnie, on Wednesday afternoon. "The gentleman drove through a big puddle yesterday, and his car shut off."

Brown said the amount of damage water can cause to a car depends a lot on the circumstances, including whether the vehicle engine is running and sucking water in at the time it comes in contact with the water. But vehicles can be totaled, he said.


Brown found water in the Mitsubishi's intake manifold and the air filter, and in the engine, he said.

"That thing is all full of water where it shouldn't have any," he said. "The only thing we can do is go ahead and build an estimate for what it would cost to repair or replace the items that are needed."

Then it's up to insurance to determine if the car is worth fixing at all. Memenza said water damage, whether a vehicle is parked in a flood or driven through water, should be covered by drivers' comprehensive policies, but that insurance varies.

Vehicles caught in high water should not be started "until a thorough inspection is completed," said Ragina Cooper-Averella, a AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman. Car owners also should contact their insurance providers to determine the extent of their coverage before seeking repairs.

Brown said car owners should do that quickly, though, as "time is of the essence" when a vehicle's engine or interior is wet and susceptible to corrosion. Mold can also be an issue.

In the BWI lot, vehicles with water marks along their sides sat in the sun Wednesday and at first appeared to be dry. A glance inside, however, revealed water in many: pooled in the flooring of a Volkswagen, in the low-lying coin tray of a Toyota.


Up and down the parking lot, windshield wipers held down slips of yellow paper from the Maryland Aviation Administration: "We are so sorry to inform you that your car may have been affected by high water resulting from a record amount of rainfall …" the message began, before providing a contact number for Maryland Parking, the MAA's contractor that operates the lots.

Kingdon Gould III, president of Parking Management Inc., a company that runs Maryland Parking through a partnership with a third company, said eight claims against the company's insurer had been filed by vehicle owners as of Wednesday afternoon.

The MAA owns the lots, and Gould said he was still unsure how the claims would be handled by MAA's insurers, Maryland Parking's insurers and individual vehicle owners' insurers.

"We're of course sorry for all the inconvenience. I don't think it could have been anticipated," he said. "Every so often, the weather overwhelms us."

Whitney Kidd, a MAA spokeswoman, referred questions to Maryland Parking, which she said would be handling insurance claims for now. The MAA is working with the company to make sure travelers have the information and assistance they need to get home.

"This is the first time we've ever had this occur," she said. "It was a historic rainfall."


Some travelers and vehicle owners affected by the flooding expressed frustration at what they called a lack of communication from Maryland Parking.

Robert McAllister of Wilmington said his son arrived Tuesday in a long-term Maryland Parking lot to find one of the family's cars flooded.

"When he requested assistance from the parking employee at the cashiers office, they were more concerned with collecting his parking fee than assisting him with his vehicle. Additionally, they made him wait 10-15 minutes to provide him with a claim report," McAllister wrote in an email to airport officials Wednesday morning. "During this entire event, no one express[ed] any regret or concern to his situation. They treated the event as an inconvenience for them!"

His son drove the car from the lot but said the brakes were giving him problems, McAllister said.

By Wednesday afternoon, McAllister had spoken to a representative of Maryland Parking but said he was given few answers as to how the claims process would work.

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"I said, 'You must have already discussed this. There are so many claims likely to come,' but he would not answer that question," McAllister said of his conversation with the company representative. "I found it very evasive."


Back in the lot, Donahue walked around his Tesla, noting damage. His wheels were already rusting. The car's interior floors felt damp.

Rather than start the car — he didn't want to get "electrocuted or blown up," he said — he called Tesla, which operates its own customer care service in part because its vehicles require special maintenance and handling.

The word back: Do not move the vehicle. A special Tesla towing service would arrive to retrieve the car and take it to Tesla's facilities in Rockville to test whether the electric car's battery — which stretches along its floor and constitutes its engine — is all right.

"That's the $80,000 question," he said.