NY airport housing thousands of vehicles damaged during Superstorm Sandy

Rick Leventhal reports from Riverhead, NY


Calverton Executive Airpark is a small regional airport on the east end of Long Island that serves private planes during the warmer months and shuts down every winter, leaving its wide expanse of pavement empty for months. But that changed after Hurricane Sandy.

Insurance Auto Auctions Inc, a salvage auto auction company specializing in total-loss vehicles, acquired tens of thousands of cars and trucks that were swamped, damaged or destroyed by the storm and needed a place to store the vehicles. So the company approached the Town of Riverhead, which owns the airport, and the two struck a deal: $3,200 per month per acre. IAA brings in the vehicles on trailers, stores them at the airport and auctions them online.

"This is a fantastic deal for the town" says Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.  

“The Town of Riverhead has a general fund of $45 million. If they stay here for the full year we’ll reap the benefit of about $2.7 million, and in these economic times that is a big, big profit for the town."

The vehicles fill 35 acres of space, including a large holding lot, a taxiway and most of two runways, one nearly 2 miles long. Many of the rides are nearly new, and few are more than 10 years old. Some show significant damage from being hit by debris or crushed in accidents, while others have few signs of trouble but were submerged in floodwaters for 24 hours or more.

Read: What to do if your car gets flooded

No one is being allowed into the airport to get a close look at the inventory. Buyers can only shop online, and must be recyclers, rebuilders or dismantlers, licensed and registered with the state. And the vehicles are all listed as flood-damaged with NMVTIS, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, to ensure that future buyers can determine the car or truck's history.

The town and auctioneer say the cars should all be sold off in three to six months, but that's not soon enough for some environmentalists, including Richard Amper with the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, who says that chemicals may be leaking from the cars into an aquifer below ground that supplies drinking water to much of Long Island.

"Road runoff is the third largest contributor to groundwater pollution on Long Island" Amper says, "and these people have gone to the center of the Island’s most pristine drinking water supply and put some 35,000 wrecked vehicles, a truly bad idea. Long Islanders get all of their drinking water from underground. What gets into the ground gets into their water, and we think it shouldn’t be fluids from wrecked cars.”

The auction company says it has 100 people inspecting the cars daily and that all of the vehicles are parked on pavement. Walter is confident that there’s no danger to the water supply.

"They’re all vehicles 10 years old or newer, and if you think about this logically there’s no reason that these cars would be leaking any kind of oils of grease or gas or anything like that just because they were submerged or partially submerged for 12 or 24 hours. When you look at the vehicles out on the tarmac they don’t look any different than something you might see at a shopping mall. The only difference is these pollute less because there’s no exhaust coming out of the tailpipes."

The town says the vehicles have to be off the main runway by March so pilots can return, but the shorter runway has been closed for years and if the space is still needed, it just might be available.