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Tooter Moss' birthday present this year was a half-million dollars of flood damage and a foot of floodwater in the South Pittsburg car dealership he opened back in 1957.
The founder of Moss Motor Co. celebrated his 78th birthday Tuesday, a few days after floodwater swept through 31 new cars at his dealership. Twenty-five of those were totaled.
"We lost all of our Fords, with one exception," said sales manager Shawn Henson. "And all but six of our Chryslers."
Insurance will pay for the damage to the cars -- except deductibles -- but the company doesn't have flood insurance and is looking at thousands of dollars in cleanup costs. Computers, iPhone chargers, paper documents, furniture and equipment were soaked during the flash flood that surprised South Pittsburg on Wednesday, July 10.
A week later, the office is full of wrinkled, water-stained papers. There's a dark mark on the walls where the water peaked. Each of the flooded cars is marked with a big "F."
The totaled vehicles will be taken away by the dealerships, stamped with a branded title and sold -- probably for parts or salvage.
Henson said he thinks Moss Motor was lucky.
"Nobody's dead, nobody is seriously injured," he said, adding that the flooding hit other parts of the city harder than the dealership. "The rest of this can be replaced. We'll just have to work hard."
That hard work started the day after the flood, when the company's 40 employees worked from about 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. CDT to get the long-standing community business up and running.
Someone called the insurance company, someone took photos, others pulled the equipment out of the service department, some worked on salvaging soaked hard drives. The ruined, muddy cars were moved up on a hill to dry out. And since another couple inches of rain were in the forecast, employees made sure the storm drains were clear, just in case.
They even managed to sell a few cars that day, Henson said.
"My employees busted their hind ends off," Moss said. "I couldn't ask for better workers."
He's retired now and his son, Steve Moss, runs the dealership. Back when he started selling cars in 1957, he was the only employee and ran the dealership by himself for about 10 years, he said.
"I don't sell anymore, but I come by every day to fuss at them a little," he said.
He can still rattle off the years the company earned its dealerships. GM was in 1965, Ford in 1975, Chrysler in 1981 and Jeep in 1984, or maybe 1985.
In those days, he sold cars with one document and a handshake, instead of the 15 or so forms required today. The company used to sell 1,400 cars a year, but now sells about half that and averages around 60 a month.
There's no telling how many South Pittsburg residents have bought cars from Moss during the dealership's 56-year history.
"A lot," Moss said with a laugh.
And although this is the worst flood in the company's history, it's not the first. The dealership flooded slightly in the early 1970s and once in the 1980s.
Day-to-day work at Moss Motors is almost back to normal now, with just a few reminders of the flood. Henson said he's proud of the way the South Pittsburg community has pulled together to clean up.
A slew of other businesses -- like Hammer's Department Store in downtown -- were damaged during the flood and the city's schools took a hit. Some homeowners lost everything.
"It's tough," Henson said. "But the response of everyone was great."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at email@example.com or 423-757-6525.
Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...