The New Rat Pack: Superstorm Sandy blamed for rats damaging Brooklyn cars

So much of our world is controlled by computers that it should therefore be no surprise that a traditionally mechanical tool -- the ordinary car -- could be crippled by a computer glitch.

All over Brooklyn, there are now more cases of computer malfunctions in cars, which are indicated by dashboard flashes and signals of distress. The culprit: rats.

"I was told the critters crawled into the underside of my car for warmth," said one victim from Brooklyn Heights. "My high-tech dashboard starting sending signals, flashing icons. When I looked up what the icon meant, it indicated immediate action, like 'Danger! Take this car for service immediately,' but it was a false alarm. "

"This is like a dream commercial for garages," said the driver, who asked not to be identified. "A warm car on a cold street must be a magnet for rats."

Mechanics say that this has always been a problem in Brooklyn -- especially in the winter when rats are looking for places to stay warm -- but there has been an increase in activity since Superstorm Sandy washed rats out of sewers and subways and into the streets.

"We get our share of calls, especially from places near the water, but this year, especially in inland areas that have never been serious trouble spots, like Park Slope, we are seeing a rise in calls," said Louis Taranto from Tonto Pest Control in Brooklyn.

Exterminators say that the storm washed a lot of the rodents out of the sewers and subway tunnels. The rats have survived thanks, in part, to all the trash that was spread around the streets and neighborhoods with freshly abandoned houses in the wake of Sandy.

The problem has apparently gotten so bad that the NYC Health Department has stopped issuing violations for rats since Nov. 1 in Flood Zone A or in parts of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Red Hook, Coney Island, and Sheepshead Bay.

The hairy rodents with tails usually up to 10 inches in length are mostly nocturnal creatures that look for shelters to hide from the elements. A car tends to be the perfect hiding spot, especially if it is still warm from its last trip. Rats will burrow in engines and because of their natural tendency to gnaw, they can create havoc with cars.

“They usually chew through wires," said mechanic Tony Poapanias of Cobble Hill Super Service. "I've had a couple where the car went to start up and they get caught in the belt. That's usually a cheap cleanup and repair, but if they chew through the harness or damage the computer, repairs can get very expensive.”

Occasionally, rats have been known to get trapped in engines as well, which can destroy cars altogether.

While mechanics say that there is no way to completely ensure that your car will not be victimized, there are steps you can take to decrease the likelihood of an infestation.

It is important to make sure your car is clean. Even an empty bag of chips is enough to attract a rat. Big piles of trash put out on curbs during trash nights are like rat magnets, so parking away from them is helpful.

Placing an open container of ammonia near a car will also keep the rodents away. And if you find wires that have been chewed through, spreading hot pepper or even wasabi on the wires will keep the rats from coming back.

If you do see rats, or signs of rats, you are encouraged to report it by calling 311.