CUNA Mutual Expecting Damage Reports From Hundreds Of CUs

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Knowing approximately where Hurricane Katrina was most likely to hit, claims adjustors from CUNA Mutual Group were moved to staging areas just outside the storm-torn region so they were ready to fan out across the Gulf Coast states to assess the damage as soon as the winds and waters receded.

"As long as there is less than 10 feet of water, we're already there," said Mike Retelle, claims manager of CMG's Credit Union Protection Solutions Group. "Hurricanes are different from most other disasters we deal with in that you know they're coming. You might not know exactly where, and you might not know just how bad it's going to be, but it is one of the few disasters where you do have a little warning time to start planning."

"We have many products that come into play in a disaster like this, accidental death and dismemberment, life, auto. We are assessing not only the damage to the credit union facilities themselves-those can be rebuilt-we're trying to see how the people have been impacted," Retelle explained. "We are determining what assistance do credit unions need to become operational if they can. We don't want to inundate them with help, but we don't want to forget about them, either."

The same communications and access problems that have affected the storm's victims are also hampering efforts to help them, and CUNA Mutual's claims team is no different.

"The losses we've been able to identify so far, we know it's going to be well into the hundreds (of facilities) for credit unions-and that's just main locations," he noted. "You take a credit union like Keesler in Mississippi, and in addition to its main office, they have branches all throughout the state. When we're talking about hundreds of credit unions, that doesn't even include branches."

One of the hallmarks of credit unionists, Retelle commented, is trying to take care of their members first and putting other people's misfortunes before their own.

"These are people who say 'yes, we've got some problems, but help them first, they're worse off than we are,' " he related. "If it's one message I want to get out there it's that we want to hear from everyone who needs help. Even if you think others are worse off, we want to know how we can help you."

Another hallmark of credit unions: it's a tight-knit community.

"We had a call from a credit union in Southern Illinois. The guy who works in Illinois has a cousin who works at a credit union in Mississippi," Retelle noted. "The cousins were able to get in contact with each other, and then the one in Southern Illiniois called to tell us that his cousin is all right, and the credit union is all right. This network is tight."

All the horrors that are being shown on the news are being visited upon credit union people every much as anyone else in the beleaguered region; their stories are much the same.

"We were contacted by one woman. Her home has taken severe damage. She can't find the credit union CEO, so she decides to go to the credit union. This woman has her own home, her own life to worry about, but somehow she makes her way to the credit union," he said. "When she got there, she just stood next to a police officer, watching as about 50 people looted the credit union. The authorities are helpless. We try to tell these people, we'll take care of that, anything that's insured, we'll take care of that. Please, go take care of yourself first."

"Most of the people we have out in the field are veterans in this business, they have seen many disaster areas," Retelle offered. "We're looking at the same kind of devastation as [Hurricane] Andrew in Miami, and we thought that was bad. But this time, while it's the same level of destruction, it's just so much more widespread. This is probably the most widespread level of devastation, the worst we've seen. It's worse because there are more water issues. With Andrew, you'd see homes with no roofs everywhere. Here, because of the water, you don't even see the homes, much less the roofs."

'Serious Personal Issues'

The same dangers faced by the storm's victims in the aftermath of Katrina are also being faced by CUNA Mutual's fleet of claims adjustors.

"There's nowhere for them to stay, so they are living out of their cars, driving around to find credit unions and see what's there," Retelle described. "There are serious personal security issues. We tell them to bring enough food and water for themselves, and some of them try to bring extra to give to others. We can't be purveyors of food and water, but we want to help where can."

Until communications are back up, the adjustors are driving around the hardest-hit areas by day, and then getting far enough away at night to find a working landline phone to call in their reports.

Due to the incredible horror and suffering the claims adjustors will witness on their tour of post-Katrina duty, Retelle said he will rotate his staff in and out in seven to 10 days until CUNA Mutual is satisfied it has assessed all the major claims.

"We will physically have someone there until they can rebuild," he explained. "For those credit unions across the country that want to help, this needs to be a coordinated effort. Some credit unions have relationships with other credit unions around the nation. If you have a relationship with a specific credit union you can offer help to, that's great. Others have affiliations through their similar fields of membership, like military or postal credit unions, others through being on the same DP system, for example. But you don't just throw money at it. Work through the leagues or through groups that have distribution plans in place."

At press time, CUNA Mutual Group was still putting together its initial damage report.

NCUA RULES ON SERVICE TO NON-MEMBERS

ALEXANDRIA, Va.-NCUA ruled last week federal credit unions may provide assistance to other credit unions and non-members in the area affected by Hurricane Katrina under certain conditions, which include:

* A federal credit union may provide services to persons who are members of another credit union under their correspondent services authority.

* Emergency financial services for non-members, including the services of check cashing, access to ATM networks, or other services to meet short-term emergency needs of persons in the areas affected by the hurricane, can be provided under the authority to engage in charitable activities. Federal credit unions providing services on a charitable basis may not impose charges for services that exceed their direct cost.

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