McRee Ford owner recounts a week of watching, wading, worrying

on Sep4

It has been a year of celebrations for McRee Ford.

The dealership in Dickinson, Texas, just south of Houston near Galveston Bay, celebrated 70 years — four generations — of family-run operations last December.

Mitchell Dale, grandson of founder Frank McRee, joined the business in 1970 and now runs the show with his brother, daughter and son-in-law.

“Sooner or later you just have to start wondering when’s it going to stop.”
Mitchell Dale, McRee Ford, Dickinson, Texas

This year also marked the opening of an 85,000-square-foot repair center and store room in the dealership. “We’re very excited,” Dale told a local newspaper after the ribbon-cutting in May. “It’s very rewarding to hear not only employees but our customers comment about the new facility.”

Then came Harvey.

The dealership found itself in the path of one of the most powerful and destructive storms in U.S. history.All the employees survived, and the dealership sustained only minor damage to its buildings.

But it was a harrowing week for Dale, who checked in regularly with Automotive News as the storm passed over Texas.

Friday, Aug. 25: ‘Time to leave’

As Hurricane Harvey menaces the Texas Gulf Coast just off Corpus Christi, McRee Ford closes before noon to let employees get their affairs in order.

“There’s only so much you can do,” Dale says. “Our main concern is our employees, and making sure they had time to leave if they want to.”

Dale remembers 1979, when a tropical storm swept more than 30 inches of water into the building.

“We were totally shut down for about two weeks,” he says. “We had to replenish inventory and it just creates a real mess.”

Though they are preparing for the worst, Dale is hopeful the area will sustain only minimum water damage.

Saturday, Aug. 26: ‘Couldn’t see anything’

The morning after Harvey makes landfall near Corpus Christi, rain is falling in Dickinson, but so far, it’s nothing to be alarmed about. Dale watches the news at his home in Dickinson, spending the day with his family preparing food and water, texting and emailing employees to make sure they’re prepared. They fill the bathtub with water, in case clean water becomes an issue.

Dale knows Dickinson will be on the “nasty side,” the side that delivers the most rain. He and his family watch a weather forecast showing bands of rain detaching from the hurricane — downpours that abruptly start and stop.

“I’ve been in Dickinson my whole life. Storms before, some of them, we’d wait right out and some of them we’d leave,” he says. “Because of where it was projected to go in, we were not concerned about leaving because it was going to be more of a rain event or a wind event.”

They go into the night expecting rain, but nothing too serious.

About 10 p.m., the rain starts to settle in.

“You couldn’t see anything,” he says. “Our electricity went out Saturday night during that hard rain. That’s when the rain started. And it never stopped.”

Dickinson received more than 20 inches of rain in eight hours Saturday night.

The McRee Ford family: Mitchell Dale, center, and his son-in-law Dain Crow, from left, son Carter Dale, brother Michael Dale and daughter Molly Dale Crow.

Sunday, Aug. 27: ‘New cars … all under’

When he wakes up, Dale knows there will be a lot of water — not just in his store, but possibly in the homes of his employees.

Sure enough, the police chief calls at 6:15 a.m. to tell him his dealership had been badly hit.

“When he called, I was expecting it,” Dale says. “I knew it had rained so much. I knew it was a big possibility. I was hopeful that water wouldn’t get in the building.”

The rest of the family had known about the flooding hours earlier. A customer had texted Dale’s daughter, Molly Dale Crow, at 2:30 a.m. saying water had breached the dealership, but she and her brothers decided not to tell their dad.

“She told me she was afraid I’d do something stupid if I knew about it,” Dale says.

At 2:30 p.m., Dale’s son Carter Dale calls, saying he’s headed out by boat to rescue his brother-in-law, whose house is a half a mile away and has received about 2 feet of water.

“I was sad that there was water in the dealership, but I knew we could fix that,” Dale says. “I was more worried about our people.”

On Facebook, Dickinson resident Jordon Dunlap broadcasts a live video stream from his kayak as he drifts through the McRee Ford parking lot. Water laps against the grilles of the vehicles. “Brand new cars. Oh my gosh, they are all under,” Dunlap says. “There’s water in every single one of them.”

Another user posts images of the dealership to Facebook, showing two submerged vehicles barely visible beneath feet of murky water.

A fire broke out at Gay Buick-GMC in Dickinson, Texas, resulting in damaged vehicles such as this GMC Sierra.

Monday, Aug. 28: ‘Gay is on fire’

About 10:30 a.m. Dale heads to his dealership for the first time since the start of the storm. His son Carter remembers that one of their vendors has an airboat. The two walk half a mile to the meeting point in water up to their knees. By the time they arrive at McRee, the water has mostly receded from the building, which smells strongly of the gasoline leaking from flooded vehicles. Even the F-series pickups had been in water up to their headlights.

Dale and his son stay for 10 minutes, long enough to assess the damage and switch off the electricity. The airboat is making rounds in Dickinson in search of people needing to be rescued.

“I actually felt a little selfish, but I just had to know what things were. You know, I just — I just said a prayer for everybody that was impacted by the storm. I mean the cars in the facility are my last worry. I just want everybody to be safe.”

At 2 p.m., officials order an evacuation of Dickinson, expecting more rain. There’s also a question of whether water and sewer service would be compromised. Dale and his wife pick up his 93-year-old mother in their 2017 Ford Expedition, and along with their golden retriever, Cookie, drive 260 miles from Dickinson to their ranch in South Texas.

“This is a long journey,” Dale says on a call from the road. “The most difficult part of it for everybody is it’s lasted so long. I mean usually a storm like this, you get advance notice that it’s coming, it comes through your area and it’s gone. Then you can make a plan for recovery. But it just won’t stop.”

The roads out of town are clear, but Highway 59 takes them through areas already ravaged.

Ninety minutes into the drive, Molly texts Dale: “Gay is on fire.”

Gay Buick-GMC is the neighboring dealership. Dale gets on the phone with the fire chief, who fills in the blanks. One of the vehicles in the service department shorted out and caught fire, setting the building ablaze.

“We’re very close friends,” Dale says of his fellow dealer. “We’ve been friends and competitors for 68 years.”

“Sooner or later you just have to start wondering, when is it going to stop?”

Dickinson received 8 to 9 more inches of rain Monday night. Several more McRee Ford employees’ houses flooded for the first time. Molly’s home flooded with 4 inches of water, but they were prepared. Furniture had been set on paint cans and personal items removed from the floor.

Tuesday, Aug. 29: ‘You never know’

Fifty inches of rain have fallen on Dickinson, and 18 more are forecast for Tuesday. Waters are rising across a wide swath of metropolitan Houston, swelling rivers and reservoirs. Dale says all they can do is hold on.

“The amazing part about this, not just thinking about Dickinson, which is really devastated, but hundreds and hundreds of square miles that have really impacted people. We’re going to be OK, we’ll come together.

“People just got to realize — you never know.”

Dale and his family spend the day at the ranch texting and calling friends and family, waiting to see what will happen next.

Wednesday, Aug. 30: ‘The sun is shining’

After four days of pounding rain, there’s a letup.

“Things are better today,” Dale says. “The sun is shining. The storm has moved out.”

Better weather allows the McRee Ford team to mobilize. At 11 a.m., Dain Crow, general sales manager and Dale’s son-in-law, meets with fixed-ops director Carter Dale at the dealership to execute “recovery mode.”

The water has drained out of the store room, and the two are filing claims and taking photographs for the insurance agents to examine. McRee Ford’s used-car manager works from home on his computer, buying vehicles at the Ford closed auction to replace the lost inventory. Dale says regional and national Ford Motor Co. task force representatives are helping with the process.

“The dealership is still under mandatory evacuation. Staff is on standby. All electrical functions are back up,” Dale says. “I’m hoping right now that we can open to serve our customers on Monday.”

Dale and his family try making their way back to town from the ranch, taking circuitous detours to avoid the flooded areas that have closed more than 200 roads.

After 9½ hours in the car for what is normally a 4½-hour drive, they reach a point, 60 miles outside Houston, where they realize they can’t go any farther. The Brazos River has breached its banks, and the surrounding highways are closed. They turn back.

Thursday, Aug. 31: ‘One day at a time’

Dale hasn’t been back at the dealership since Monday, but the McRee Ford team is holding down the fort. The store’s human resources director is reaching out to staff members to see how they are doing.

By the latest count, 45 to 50 McRee Ford employees or their family members report having flooded homes. A number of them are living in hotels, others in shelters.

Dale’s brother Michael and Molly are meeting with insurance adjusters, contacting service customers whose vehicles were on site when the dealership flooded, and taking stock of personal belongings left behind during the evacuation.

One such item, a cherished one, survives the flooding: a 1965 Mustang that McRee Ford employees restored for Dale in 2012 to celebrate the dealership’s 65th anniversary. It was on display in the showroom.

“The showroom had about 8 inches of water in it,” Dale says. “Some of the other buildings had 3½ feet.”

The HR manager is visiting with every employee to find out what his or her needs are so the manager can figure out how to help. Servpro, a disaster recovery company Dale is contracted with, plans to send 40 agents Friday to stabilize the building.

“The weather’s passed, it’s sunny and warm. We’ll just take it one day at a time and move forward.”

Friday, Sept. 1: ‘Mobile office’

“I’m at the dealership!” Dale says. “I’m sitting in my car, because we’ve got no air conditioning. I’ve got myself a mobile office!”

McRee Ford is abuzz with activity and people. The remediation company has about 50 people at the dealership, ripping out carpets and cutting out the drywall. About 75 to 80 McRee employees are on site as well, still contacting customers to come sign liability release forms and collect their belongings from their vehicles that were on the lot.

“To be honest with you, [it looks] depressing,” he says. “We’re just doing everything we can to take care of the main building today where we can get it back operational.”

Dale’s plans for the day mostly consist of hugging employees and customers and hearing their stories. One customer, who lost her vehicle at McRee, tells Dale she swam to her neighbor’s house early Sunday morning, seeking shelter. The neighbor’s home was on stilts, he says, and they were unaware the streets were flooding around them.

A McRee employee tells Dale that her son had tired of watching the 24-hour news coverage of Harvey early in the week.

“Her little 3-year-old child said, ‘Mommy I don’t like this movie,'” Dale says.

“I think that kinda sums it up.”

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