With help from AutoNation and Ford, a battered Florida car dealership’s managers and employees look ahead

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Since the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael, Lori Adair drove more than two hours from a relative's home to go to work.

The service advisor at AutoNation Ford Panama City, Florida, can only return to her home once a week, a 10-minute drive from the dealer.

A few toys are littered between the debris that was Adair's house before it got tangled by the storm. Her roof has been erased and all that remains is a carcass of a house.

Although she works five to six days a week, she returns weekly to her home to check her store. "I do not like to go back to our house because of all the emotions it brings, you just see your life in ruins."

Dealership and Adair's home were destroyed last month by Hurricane Michael. The community, which has a row of at least seven dealers in the vicinity of AutoNation Ford, looks like a war zone, Adair said. Yet Adair, and many of her colleagues, despite the fact that they search through the debris at the dealership to remember the destruction of the hurricane, is a sense of normality and routine when returning to the battered store.

Hurricane Michael arrived on October 10 near Mexico Beach, Fla., With sustained gusts of up to 155 mph, making it the strongest storm ever to hit the Florida Panhandle. The storm continued on a destructive path through Georgia and in the Carolina & # 39; s and Virginia, and demolished communities and businesses along the way. Dealerships in several states were damaged, but in terms of concentrated wreck, Panama City, Florida, seemed to be ground zero.

Of the 90 employees of AutoNation Ford Panama City 20 lost almost everything in the storm, but there were no injuries or deaths, said General Manager Steve Martin.

Ready to rebuild

The dealer is finally done cleaning up and is ready to start the reconstruction, Martin told Automotive News last week.

Before the storm, the dealer's showroom was renewed and was expected to open in the third week of November. The storm destroyed the building and pushed the open date until late in the first quarter of 2019 or early in the second quarter.

Service advisor Lori Adair gathers the power to return once a week to what is left of her house, left. She says she has been touched by the generosity of the employees of AutoNation and dealers. Photo credit: SPENCER THOMAS AND LORI ADAIR

The service center with three lanes next to the showroom moved six to twelve centimeters and lost its doors during the storm, Martin said. And the building for used vehicles from the dealer has to be rebuilt. It will probably open again in the second quarter. In the meantime, employees continue to work with trailers and the stock is displayed outside.

"We start with the first one," Martin said. Fourteen new vehicles and 97 used vehicles had to be added up, and 42 new vehicles had to be recovered from damage caused by debris, he said.

The dealership reopened on 1 November and used two trailers as temporary offices for its sales team. The trailers receive electricity from generators. To make the environment more customer-friendly, the sales team placed picnic tables outside the trailers. The sales department is the only fully functioning operation of the dealer.

"It will take a while to rebuild that store, and we're doing everything we can to support our teams up there," said Marc Cannon, chief marketing officer at AutoNation.

Steve Martin, general manager of the dealership, left behind in cap, says that 20 of the 90 employees of the dealership have lost almost everything in the storm, which also caused damage to the retail space of the store, above, and the service center below. Photo credit: SPENCER THOMAS

In the service department, "we are currently continuing to use elevators and are regularly servicing vehicles," he said. "A few hundred customers have come to AutoNation Ford, looking for a vehicle or a service."

The sales department of the Panama City dealer has about 200 new vehicles and nearly 100 used vehicles that can sell employees to customers, Cannon said.

The vehicles are a combination of cars that have been stored by AutoNation Ford before the hurricane and which are recorded by AutoNation Inc. sent to the dealer.

Martin said that AutoNation immediately responded to the needs of his dealer after the hurricane. As part of the "no disruption on payroll" policy from CEO Mike Jackson, AutoNation ensured that employees in the store were fully paid until October, Martin said. In addition, the company helped employees with more money and gift vouchers.

Move heaven and earth

"AutoNation Inc. has done so much to alleviate emotional stress and devastation for our employees," said Martin.

AutoNation also raised more than $ 42,000 for workers in need and provided them with temporary phones so they could have open communication with each other and their family members.

Ford Motor Co. was also supportive, Jackson said.

Mark LaNeve, Ford's vice president of American marketing, sales and service, "was in contact with us on the same day as the storm, Ford has always been there for us through trauma," Jackson said. LaNeve "moves heaven and earth to help us and support us."

Ford has set up a disaster response team in response to Superstorm Sandy in 2012, said Paul Russell, Ford's sales operations and communications manager.

"The Ford Disaster Response Team will start as soon as a major storm or event is detected and remains involved during the relief and recovery efforts," he said.

Yet a large part of the community remains in ruins. "Panama City residents are still trying to understand what has happened," Martin said. "What the community is going through, is still surprising and shocking, I have never seen commerce stop as long as this, just save after storing emptiness."

Adair said she was moved by the generosity of AutoNation and the dealers.

"It shows that there are still decent people in the world who are willing to take an extra step to help others in need."

Hannah Lutz contributed to this report.