Hail stones Friday bombarded vehicles in a barrage that lashed Chattanooga with a ferocity not seen in almost a year.
Concentrated showers of golfball-sized hail rained onto anything not under a roof, damaging thousands of cars -- including one owned by WRCB Channel 3 chief meteorologist Paul Barys.
"We had golfball-sized hail falling at the studio, and it hit everyone's car," he said.
Businesses with hundreds of vehicles outside, such as auto dealerships and vehicle manufacturers, especially were exposed to damage, he said, which can strike without warning and is hard to track.
Volkswagen officials said Monday the automaker was bringing in experts to examine more than 1,000 Passats that were awaiting shipment in a parking lot at the Enterprise South plant when the hail hit. As the storms approached, VW workers drove some vehicles under the plant's hail net, which is about 30 percent to 40 percent installed, said VW spokesman Guenther Scherelis.
Other workers moved vehicles onto covered railroad transport cars or back into the assembly plant to keep the new cars safe.
But not all the cars were placed under cover, Scherelis said, and those remaining outside were undergoing scrutiny to assess damage.
VW is spending about $5 million to complete its massive fabric hail net to protect part of its loading yard from any falling ice in the future.
Dozens of individual vehicle owners already had their insurance claims filed by Monday morning with more than 70 auto-body damage calls rolling in to Abra Auto Body & Glass before 9:30 a.m., said co-owner Keith Clingon. The rush of dinged-up vehicles brought back memories of the April 27 tornadoes that dumped hundreds of storm-damaged cars in his lap without warning, he said.
"Last time that hail turned into hell for us," Clingon said, noting that the overload of repair work forced him to turn some customers away. "I don't think it's going to be as bad this time, but it does look like the hail's been much more concentrated."
While fewer cars were hit by hail this year, those that bore the brunt of nature's attack are in worse shape than usual, which suggests small pockets of unusually dense storms, Clingon said.
"One of these cars looks like someone took a ball-peen hammer and hit it as fast as they could," he said.
Tim Kelly saw what an army of hail hammers could do when workers discovered that 75 cars at his Riverfront Parkway Subaru dealership had been struck. However, Kelly is expecting a glut of business at his nearby body shop to make up some of the repair expense.
"Some of it can be repaired easily, and if people are doing the work correctly, it's literally imperceptible," Kelly said. "But some of it will have to be painted, and we're going to have a big old sale.
"At this point, we really don't know all the extent because the hail was so spotty, hitting some neighborhoods and missing others," Kelly said. "It'll still be a tough pill to swallow economically, but we'll just deal with it and move on."
Without factoring insurance coverage and deductibles into the equation, a hail-damaged car can cost as low as $300 or as much as $1,500 to repair if a vehicle has more than 100 significant dents, said Donny McAllister, owner of Dent Busters in Ringgold, Ga. Repairs can involve removing, repainting or even replacing body panels if the damage is severe enough, even though it's more often a quick fix, he said.
But this time, he said, "I've actually looked at some cars that are damaged, and they're fairly severe."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315. Contact staff writer Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6318.