After a relatively slow start, the storm season 2008 was one of the most destructive in recent memory. One of the statistics that's not generally reported in such natural disasters is the number of cars that are damaged by the floodwaters, often having been completely submerged.

Three storms in September alone battered the U.S. and soaked hundreds of thousands of cars. The Atlantic seaboard was littered with flooded cars in the wake of Tropical Storm Hanna, while vehicles from the Gulf Coast, from Galveston to New Orleans, and all the way up through Indiana were soaked by Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike.

Let's also not forget Hurricane Fay's August assault on Florida and the floods that ravaged Midwest states like Iowa, Missouri and Illinois in June, turning thousands of vehicles in those states into waterlogged wrecks.

The number of flood damaged cars on the market more than doubled from 2002-2006 and these powerful storms are likely to result in even more being resold -- often thousands of miles away from where they were damaged. A flooded car from Houston or Cedar Rapids, Iowa is more likely to wind up for sale somewhere in Arizona, New York or California than it is locally.

Despite the fact that most flood damaged vehicles from Hurricane Ike and other storms will be written off by insurance companies, some will make their way back onto the used car market, cleaned up and disguised as regular used cars with clean titles. Flood damage can be difficult to spot because typically there's little physical damage; a car that's been underwater literally will rot from the inside out.

Consumers shopping for a used car should be on high alert for signs of flood damage and potential fraud. Flood damage information is reported to Carfax from all 50 state DMVs and, as a service to consumers everywhere, is available for free at www.carfax.com/flood.

Carfax also offers these tips to help consumers spot signs of possible water damage:

- Check the trunk, glove compartment, dashboard, and below the seats for signs of water damage such as silt, mud or rust.

- Examine upholstery and carpeting closely; if it doesn't match the interior or fits loosely, it may have been replaced. Discolored, faded or stained materials could indicate water damage.

- Turn the ignition key and make sure that accessory and warning lights and gauges work properly. Make sure the air bag and ABS lights come on and go off.

- Test power and electronics systems such as interior/exterior lights, windows and door locks, radio, cigarette lighter, heater and air conditioner several times to make sure they work.

- Flex some of the wires beneath the dashboard. Wet wires will become brittle once dry and may crack.

- Take a whiff for musty odors or strong perfumes used to mask the smell of mildew.

Always ask the seller to see a detailed Carfax Vehicle History Report or order one at www.carfax.com. Carfax Reports can reveal many hidden problems from a vehicle's past, including flood titles, salvage, odometer problems and much more. Just as important, go to a trusted mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection before handing over any money.

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