CUs Repairing From Katrina, As Others Preparing For Rita

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As recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina continue, Gulf Coast credit unions were bracing for an equally scary Hurricane Rita in a one-two punch from Mother Nature that threatens to lock down a number of credit unions, possibly for good.

With every Katrina-affected credit union finally back up and running-whether at a hot site, out of a fellow credit union's donated offices, or out of one of its own branches-some of those same credit unions and their members and employees were having to batten down the hatches and evacuate again as The Credit Union Journal was going to press.

After watching the Louisiana and Mississippi leagues cope with Hurricane Katrina, the Texas league was able to apply some lessons learned by their fellow leagues, issuing not only emergency contact information for league staff and credit unions alike, but also emergency checklists to help them prepare for the storm.

"Taking lessons from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Texas Credit Union League is urging Texas credit union CEOs in the Gulf Coast region and across the state to implement plans and procedures today in preparation for Hurricane Rita," the league said in its pre-Rita message to credit unions. "Based on what our colleagues in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama learned a couple of weeks ago, a little planning today might preempt a lot of headaches early next week."

In addition to suggestions such as establishing a toll-free number for members and exchanging contact information evacuation plans with staff, TCUL even went into detail about how to secure facilities and residences.

For example, to keep as much water out as possible, credit unions were told to line doors with plastic and then sandbag both sides of the door. If the CU didn't have access to sandbags, the league suggested using deposit bags filled with dirt or sand.

Assessing Storm Preparedness

NCUA examiners and CUNA Mutual Group staff were contacting Gulf Coast credit unions ahead of the storm to assess their storm preparedness.

With a number of its staff living along Texas' Gulf Coast, the league was urging employees to obey evacuation orders and even provided a list of hotels that still had vacancies, as finding a place to stay had become a critical issue due to evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi who fled Katrina just weeks ago and, in many cases, have not left as they have no place to which to return.

Indeed, the league was trying to help those staffers without friends or relatives further inland to pair up with league employees living in other parts o the state.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, credit unions were praying Rita would stay far enough away to let beleaguered New Orleans continue its recovery.

"They're saying that even just three inches of rain is all it would take to tumble those levees," said Alicia Blanda of the Louisiana league. "The western part of the state is on alert, and the people who have come back, they've been told they must leave again."

Even so, Blanda said that even as the league continues to work out of Bayou FCU, things were "getting back to normal even though we're still displaced."

"Some of the staff have seen our offices, and apparently they came through pretty well," she told The Credit Union Journal. "CUNA Mutual Group owns our building, and we are not allowed back in until a structural engineer has declared it safe. But I'm told it looks pretty good. It helped that we were on the second floor."

Nevertheless, CUNA has cancelled several conferences scheduled for New Orleans.

"I wish I could say that Hurricane Katrina has only affected the professional aspect of our lives, however, that, unfortunately, is not so," LCUL CEO Anne Cochran said.

"Fifteen of our 25 staff members were displaced by Katrina, myself included. Our losses range from moderate to severe. Two have lost everything. Some have been able to return home while others have had to make temporary living arrangements. I have not been able to return to my home and am currently living at my son's house in Baton Rouge. Ryan was activated Aug. 29 with the Louisiana Air Guard and has not returned home since then. The damage to my home is so severe that I am not sure when I can return home," she said.

Cochran's story is repeated by countless others throughout Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, and at press time, Texas was bracing for much the same fate.

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