The Wrath of El Niño


Crazy weather across the country might mean big changes to your auto insurance

El Niño tornado

The 2015-2016 El Niño has been dubbed “Godzilla El Niño” by weather experts—and with good reason. Just like the giant lizard that destroyed anything in its path, so too has the current El Niño cycle wreaked havoc across the globe, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere.

El Niño last occurred during the winter of 2009-2010, but then the weather changes were only considered “moderate,” compared with this winter’s “very strong”–a designation only given two other times since records began 65 years ago. Some news outlets are reporting this El Niño cycle is the worst we’ve ever seen.

On Thursday, February 17, The World Meteorological Organization announced that El Niño had passed its peak, but it’ll be months before we see improved conditions in North America. Meanwhile, we’re left to pick up the pieces of destruction caused by the extreme and unusual weather.

“El Niño” Defined

El Niño, and its twin La Niña, which occur every two to seven years, are complex weather patterns that originate near the equator and come about through changes in the ocean’s temperatures.

Though El Niño can last for nine to 12 months (and in rare cases, even longer), in North America we usually see effects during the winter months. The NOAA reports that the Western and Northern U.S. experience warmer-than-average temperatures, while the Gulf Coast and Florida see wetter-than-average conditions, and the Midwest and Pacific Northwest have drier-than-average conditions.

El Niño blizzard 2016

Effects of El Niño

We’re now in the midst of the strongest El Niño cycle since the winter of 1997-1998, and while facts and figures aren’t in yet on total damages or losses from this cycle, looking at what happened 18 years ago can show us where we might be headed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association reports that the last time El Niño hit so hard, “The result was unusual weather in parts of the world, including the U.S. Severe weather events included flooding in the southeastern United States, major storms in the Northeast, and flooding in California.”

The heavy rains, flash floods, strong winds, and snowy conditions associated with El Niño impact everything from crops to travel plans, but El Niño can also have a very real impact on the number of car crashes and the amount of vehicle damage we experience.

News outlets say this El Niño cycle might be the worst we've ever seen.

El Niño and Cars

In the U.S., we experience the effects of El Niño to a greater or lesser extent depending on which line of latitude our home is located. This year in the Northeast, we’ve had several days of below-freezing weather and high winds followed quickly by an almost spring-like reprieve, only to be thrust back into the polar depths—all due to El Niño’s effects. And California has already had so much rain that many people are hopeful drought conditions might improve. Intense weather changes affect our day-to-day activities, of course, but they also can have a big impact on the cars we drive. A few examples of vehicular damage from this year’s El Niño weather system:

  • One person was killed when a tree fell on a car during a January storm in Southern California.
  • Heavy rains and high winds in California left drivers stranded and forced to abandon their cars, and a big San Francisco storm during peak commuting time flooded roads and caused car crashes.
  • Florida has seen an increase in tornadoes from El Niño, and one “tossed cars and trucks about Florida’s Turnpike,” according to the Sun-Sentinel.
  • ABC 9 reports “A treacherous mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain caused car crashes from the Mid-Atlantic states through Pennsylvania to northern New England on Tuesday, February 16,” including three deaths on slick roads in Virginia.

Other ways El Niño can ruin vehicles include exceptional rainfall which often causes irreparable water damage, big changes in temperature which can stress the engine, and tornados and high winds which can cause large objects to crush cars. And, of course, all of these scenarios can impact auto insurance rates.

Tree crushes car El Niño

El Niño and Auto Insurance

Property Casualty 360 reports that the El Niño-driven cooler, wetter conditions in the South, and above-average temperatures in the North, may be contributing to more car crashes this winter, which will mean more auto insurance claims. And we all know what an increase in claims means: an increase in price for policyholders. This is especially bad because auto insurance prices were already set to rise this year due to the increase in driving and car crashes nationally over the last year.

Insurance prices are likely to change regionally, with places heavily impacted by El Niño seeing the biggest increases. The Palm Beach Post reports that Florida already makes the most flood-related claims of any state in the union, and with the unusually wet conditions the state is now experiencing during their dry season, that rate is sure to climb this year, bringing higher rates for policyholders.

We’ll have to wait until the season ends for hard numbers about changes in auto insurance rates, but the increase in crashes and claims across the U.S. is likely to mean higher premiums for many drivers, even ones who didn’t make a claim themselves.

More crashes and claims due to El Niño storms will likely mean higher premiums.

El Niño Preventative Measures

First, weatherproof your car for whichever climate you’re in, and factor El Niño-related changes into your plans. From our region-by-region weather proofing guide:

  • Continuous subzero temperatures can cause stress on your car’s engine, so take extra care when monitoring your battery and fluids, and regularly have the engine’s belts and hoses inspected for cracks.
  • Be sure your tires’ tread and pressure meet regulations so you don’t slip around on wet roads, and have your brakes checked regularly.
  • Make sure your defroster is working well, and replenish the anti-freeze fluids so your radiator doesn’t crack.

If heavy rain is expected and floods are predicted, take preventative measures where you can: get your car to high ground (it takes fewer than two feet to carry off a car, and if waters rise above the floorboards, most insurers will declare the car a total loss), close all windows and sunroofs, and make sure the trunk is secured shut.

If you live in a region of the U.S. likely to see increased rains this El Niño cycle, be sure your policy covers floods. Most comprehensive policies do, but you’ll have to look carefully at your own or speak with your agent to know for sure. For more driving advice, check out our guide for driving in extreme weather.