Car rental firms struggle with post-Katrina aftermath

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NEW YORK -- Hurricane Katrina left the nations major car rental companies scrambling to account for all their vehicles while struggling to locate missing employees and put their lives and families back together.

Most major car-rental firms with outlets in the region said last week it was too early to estimate the monetary or operational impact that Katrina had on their business. Besides, they stressed, for now they are focused on disaster relief and employee assistance.

Even so, a spokeswoman at Enterprise Rent-a-Car did venture to speculate that the St. Louis-based company had likely lost scores of cars and tens of millions of dollars in business since the Aug. 29 storm.

We have thousands of vehicles misplaced, she said. But right now, were really focused on helping and getting people where they need to go.

For their part, Cendant Car Rental Group, parent company of Avis and Budget, and Vanguard Car Rental USA, the owner of Alamo and National, said losses were few but inventory appraisals are ongoing and cars are now actually being moved back into the disaster area.

Twenty-six Enterprise rental centers -- under water or otherwise destroyed -- were still not operational early last week. That was down from 37 initial closures just after Katrina hit. Those that are back up working have generators and are hand writing [rental] contracts, the spokeswoman said. They may have no power, but they can at least help.

She added that its hard to guess when area operations would return to normal, saying that the firm expected a long recovery.

In the meantime, Enterprise is moving mobile car-rental units to affected areas and siting them near closed locations. The units have everything in it ready to be plugged in and go, said the spokeswoman.

By the end of last week, the company also had moved more than 10,000 vehicles to the Gulf Coast to assist with relief efforts, and it planned to move in thousands more.

About 3,000 of those vehicles were rented to groups such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Red Cross and insurance company catastrophe teams.

Likewise, Cendant -- with 12 Avis and Budget locations out of service in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi early last week -- is using its Baton Rouge, La., airport outlet to rent vehicles to emergency workers and government officials.

Every car we manage to get into Baton Rouge is rented almost immediately, the majority to FEMA and the Red Cross, said a spokesman for Cendant in Parsippany, N.J.

Both Avis and Budget are thought to have sustained little damage to their Gulf Coast inventories because most vehicles based in the area were rented by evacuees and driven out of the area, he noted.

Were still assessing, but we believe the impact was minimal, the Cendant spokesman said. Still, we havent been able to get into many of these places to actually check inventories, he said.

Vanguard, too, lost a number of cars along with its rental location in New Orleans. Like its competitors, it also faced the more immediate problem of locating and assisting affected employees.

Were having some trouble locating all our New Orleans-area employees and have not reached them all as yet, said a Vanguard spokesman.

In one case, Vanguard supplied emergency cash to its station manager in Gulfport, Miss., who lost three family members and her home in the storm.

Cendant has put many of its 250 Avis and Budget employees in the affected region into temporary housing and hotels.

And Enterprise -- with 21 missing employees -- is supplying $3,000 cash grants to workers under severe strain from post-Katrina trauma; a dozen had accepted, according to the company spokeswoman.

The firm also established a toll-free employee assistance number at (800) 239-2886 and a Hurricane Katrina information Web page at www.enterprise.com.

Each car-rental company also was maintaining benefits for affected employees.

Meanwhile, car-rental customers in the stricken zone were benefitting mainly from waived one-way drop-off fees and preferential rates.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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