Should I start my car if it’s been flooded?

No, in almost all cases. If the car was only in a few inches of water that didn’t rise past the bottom of the body, maybe. Water higher than that can get into wires, transmission parts, the exhaust or other places. Deeper water could enter the cylinders that surround the pistons. Trying to start the car could bend parts that connect the pistons to the rest of the drive train, said John Nielsen, managing director of automotive engineering for AAA.

If it’s repaired, will my car be safe?

Probably not. Water could have damaged sensors, electrical connectors, computer chips and wiring that are under the carpet, behind the dashboard or in the engine compartment. That could disable lights, airbags, ignition, gas and brake pedal sensors or other essential systems. Corrosion can form beneath wiring insulation. Salty water from the Gulf of Mexico would make that worse. Damage may not surface for years. “Maybe it’s OK. Maybe it’s not. I would be really worried about it,” says Nielsen.

Will insurance cover a flooded car?

Depends on your coverage. If you’re financing or leasing, your lender likely requires comprehensive insurance, which typically covers flood damage along with fire, vandalism or falling objects. But if you own a car outright, or it’s old and would be more expensive to repair than it’s worth, you may choose not to get comprehensive coverage. As of 2013, 78 percent of U.S. insured drivers had comprehensive coverage, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

If you are filing a claim, start by:

  • Taking photos. Grab the nearest camera—or phone—and start snapping pictures of the damage. The more photographic evidence you acquire, the better. Don’t forget to capture the car’s interior, trunk, and engine, as well as any other areas that may have sustained damage.
  • Contacting your insurance company. They’ll ask for all pertinent information—including the photos you took—and should point you in the right direction of where to go next. But remember: the company will likely be dealing with thousands of claims. Patience with the process will be key.
  • Forming a plan. Dealing with an insurance claim in the wake of a disaster could take months—especially if your car is declared a total loss. It will most likely be left to you to figure out how to get around in the interim.

How do insurers handle flooded cars?

Once an owner files a claim, the insurer will evaluate the damage. Many states have guidelines for a vehicle to be considered a total loss, including the extent and type of damage and the cost of repair, says Missy Dundov, a spokeswoman for State Farm. If the insurer determines the vehicle is a total loss, it will pay the owner — minus a deductible that’s typically $500 to $1,000 — and take the vehicle and the title.

If insurance doesn’t cover flood damage:

  • Apply for FEMA assistance (see above).
  • Get a disaster loan (see above).
  • Check your homeowners insurance policy. You may be able to cover damage to your vehicle—especially if it was parked on your property at the time—depending on your plan. Contact your insurance agent for more details.
  • Sell your car. Believe it or not, there’s a market for damaged vehicles. Local salvage yards may be interested in purchasing your car. Call around first—both to see if a lot is interested, and to compare how much each business is willing to pay.

Purchasing a Car

Flood-damaged cars that were cleaned up and repaired will have titles that indicate they were rebuilt, but some will have illegally altered titles. Others that were either not insured or weren’t damaged enough to be declared as total wrecks will be spiffed up and offered with otherwise clear titles.

Aside from following typical best practices when buying a used car, watch out for signs of flood damage or an altered title with any vehicle you purchase. Here’s what to watch out for:

  • A damp, mildewy scent
  • Watermarks on rugs, upholstery, and seat belts, or recently replaced or shampooed of the same
  • Mud, silt, or debris (check under the rugs, under the hood, under the dashboard, and in the trunk)
  • Rust under the vehicle and in body seams
  • Problems with electrical components

You can purchase a vehicle history report from Carfax or similar and have a mechanic check out the used vehicle to be totally certain it’s safe.

If you decide to buy a new car, Ford is offering employee discounts to flood survivors and other discounts to responders (check out more info here).