Disaster Plan Lessons From A CU That's Been There

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Pen Air FCU doesn't play around when it comes to disaster planning.

John A. Davis, Jr., Pen Air president, said his members and employees have learned the lessons of the past after Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis crashed through the area. Dennis had winds of 125 mph earlier this summer. In 2004, Ivan was a monster that killed 54 people and caused $13 billion in damage. Bridges were washed out, power was gone for everyone and residents in Davis' own neighborhood lost their lives. His own home incurred $70,000 in damages. The Pensacola area was out of Katrina's storm surge but was subject to winds of nearly 80 mph for a very long 18 hours.

"Surprisingly, it was even longer being under high winds than with Ivan," he remembered.

Over the years, Pen Air officials have endlessly tweaked their disaster plan, upgraded electrical systems and even petitioned the county for permits to drill its own water wells. Here are a few plays out of the Pen Air disaster playbook.

Cash 'In Hand' is King

It's not just having access to cash that's important during a disaster. It's actually having it in hand before the storm hits and the power fails. With no electricity, ATMs, credit card machines and gas pumps don't work leaving many without needed food, gas or supplies.

"Just before Dennis, members were lining up to use ATMs," he said.

During Hurricane Katrina, Davis, the Pen Air chairman of the board, and their families had spent the night on the fifth floor of the Pensacola main branch to keep tabs on the unfolding storm. The Monday after Katrina hit the Gulf States, Pen Air remained closed. The next day, with some branches still closed, Pen Air opened two branches with drive-through service only.

"We said 'look whatever the member needs we're going to do at the drive through'," he said. "We felt that was the smart thing to do."

Another little disaster trick: cops. With so much cash flying around and being disbursed from one spot at a branch, police or national guardsmen are a necessity.

For Katrina, police stood guard by the lines of cars as they were the most likely targets for robbers.

Ordinarily, members conduct routine transactions such as deposits or withdrawals, but Davis said Katrina changed that plan.

Power is Good. More Power is Better.

The Pensacola headquarters was originally built with three stories in 1999. By 2001, the corporate office was growing and two more stories were added. The existing power generator was insufficient to the new task, so a more powerful generator was brought in. The older model was placed in another branch resulting in three Pen Air sites that can have full power during emergencies.

Even Davis had started to wonder if they would ever use the expensive electric generator Pen Air bought in 2001. It had cost approximately $200,000 and wasn't being used. In fact, the weekly power tests were racking up more time on the generator than the entire five-story building.

"We spent a ton of money on the first generator (also)," Davis remembered.

Then Hurricane Ivan hit and proved the value of the under-worked generator. Kicking into high gear when power shuts down, the generator can run Pen Air's entire operation plus air conditioning, while surrounding homes and businesses are literally in the dark. Davis credited his board members with the foresight and providing the necessary funds to buy the generator. "I can count to 13 seconds and the power is back on," he said. "My board members call it insurance."

Get Friendly with Your Disaster Plan

Pen Air has an extensive disaster plan that is updated frequently, with copies given to every senior manager in the credit union. The size of a big-city phone book, Davis carries his home every day. "This is my bible," he said.

Like many CU officials in storm prone areas of the country, Davis says that a disaster plan is an ever-evolving plan that if left on a shelf will quickly be outdated. One critical aspect is a list of employee telephone numbers. It changes constantly and is one of the first items used after a hurricane to learn who's safe, whether or not they can come to work and to pass along relevant information, such as which CU branches are in operation.

"You have to take this stuff serious and it's not cheap," he said. "This is not a game."

Assess Your Own Situation

Pen Air FCU's corporate headquarters was strategically located 15 miles from the coast to prevent flooding from storm surge. The building is built to post-Hurricane Andrew standards with hurricane-proof windows, and is covered with a synthetic wrap to fight wind intrusion. Davis said the wrap is similar to a pool liner and is place in between the concrete-poured walls and the brick fa?ade of the building.

Pen Air has a data processing emergency bunker with two-foot-think concrete walls, concrete roof, a generator and a kitchen to cook food for employees. One problem was water. A massive storm can damage water pipes or flood pumping stations, rendering normal water supplies unsafe. Davis contacted the appropriate city and county officials and got permission to drill a deep well for fresh water at the bunker site.

"We wanted water we could drink," he said.

Davis said the Pen Air deep well has to be manually connected to the bunker system after city water is manually disconnected. City or county officials require a private water source to be disconnected to prevent a possible decontamination of the public system.

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