Are Credit Unions Ready?
With the June 1 start of the 2006 hurricane season only days away, Gulf State CUs are better prepared in the event once-in-a-lifetime storms choose to visit again.
After losing his own home to storm surge, Navigator FCU EVP Laurin Avara struggled with a destroyed headquarters, four feet of muddy water in his main office and locating all of his employees. Most of the Gulf States remain very vulnerable to storm activity, whether hurricanes, tornados or violent summertime storms. Avara said the NFCU call center and lending operations are still inside trailers in the CU parking lot and that 5,000 people in the area are still living in FEMA trailers. While he said NFCU is mostly ready and fine tuning its disaster plan, there hasn't been much of a break since Katrina.
"I've spent most of my time in recovery from 2005. The '06 hurricane season is really a continuation of the '05 season," Avara said.
With so many people and businesses living or operating from frail trailers, Avara predicted the area will see a mass evacuation in case of a large storm. That means NFCU will need to increase cash on hand to accommodate surging member withdrawals before a hurricane strikes. Avara said member surveys revealed that 77% reported trouble obtaining cash last year. "We're going to see a lot of people evacuate. The goal is to keep the doors open as late as possible," he said.
Navigator Federal itself plans to evacuate 24 hours before landfall, which will dictate closing operations before that date. Avara also said Navigator just recently successfully tested its hotsite that will now be located in Indiana during any type of disaster.
Singing River FCU was just as hard hit as Navigator FCU. SRFCU President James B. Smith, Jr. said he's confident that the CU is ready for hurricane season, but that's for a "normal" season, not the monster storm from 2005.
"Can we battle one like last year? No one could. I don't think anyone can," Smith said.
Smith said Singing River had made plenty of operational changes such as raising the DP systems and safety deposit boxes four feet off the ground to prevent flooding. Many Gulf State residents lost valuables and family possessions due to flooded deposit boxes. Smith said a new satellite based communications systems connects all branches and now all senior staff are connected by telephone and online with new Blackberry personal digital assistants (PDA).
"Technology wise, we are much better prepared," he said.
While not located in the flood zone, Smith said SRFCU purchased flood insurance anyway. Smith said most important are operational changes that dictate certain actions as a hurricane approaches. Smith said CU staff now knows which actions to take when a hurricane reaches certail parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
Texas Credit Union League COO Bob Gallman said the Lone Star State CUs along the coast are set for the new season, but said the Texas League has stressed overall safety and not just for hurricanes. Gallman said with Texas tornadoes, dust storms and huge chemical and oil plants in the southern parts of the state, every CU needs to be ready all the time.
"We don't want them to be so focused on hurricanes, that if nothing happens, then they'll feel safe," Gallman said.
To help with this ongoing planning, Gallman said the league is offering seminars and webinars from now until September that will provide templates on disaster planning with easy-to-follow checklists and procedures. Gallman said these ready-made plans are designed to remind CUs of any overlooked aspects of a disaster plan. For example, Texas League Communication Director Allison Castle said CUs need to remember that local radio and television are critical methods of communication to the CU membership, who might not be able to travel to a branch after a disaster. The Texas League templates provide a checklist of media outlets for CUs to contact when needed.
Gallman also said that the Texas League is planning to build a server that will allow CUs to upload their disaster plans for safety. If a natural or man-made disaster destroys a branch or main office, CU staff will still be able to download and activate their plans. Gallman said the overall message for Texas is that its credit unions are prepared, but continue to update and adjust their plans as necessary.
Pensacola, Fla.-based Pen Air FCU CEO John Davis echoed his Mississippi neighbors' attitudes about high vault cash amounts and gauging CU response by the geographic location of an inbound hurricane. With a large disaster plan in place since the impact of Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis, Davis knows that when a storm enters the Gulf of Mexico, his members are going to come streaming in. Three days before Katrina made landfall last year, Davis said Pen Air distributed $4 million in only one day.
"After Ivan, that was the eye awakener for our members," he said. Davis said Pen Air had also relocated its entire call enter to its hot site, a concrete-lined bunker with its own well for water and staff living quarters.