Editor's Note: Associate Editor Lisa Freeman recently participated in a press tour of Louisiana's credit unions as they seek to recover from Hurricane Katrina, including tagging along with some New Orleans CU officials as they worked to re-enter their facilities for the first time since the storm (see related story page 1, photos pages 14 & 15). Below, Ms. Freeman shares observations and interviews from portions of that tour.
Water, Water Everywhere, But It's Not The Same
NEW ORLEANS-Water. It's one of the basic building blocks of all life: the human body is about 80% water; about 75% of the earth is covered in water; a human usually can't survive without water for more than a few days. It is elemental and universal.
But in New Orleans, it's a killer.
Credit unions, their employees and members have learned that there are all different kinds of water, and they're not all good. There's storm water, not to be confused with floodwater, not to be confused with drinking water and bathing water.
"You see, there's water that gets into your home from the ground up, that's flood water. Then there's water that comes from the sky down, that's storm water," explained Louisiana CU League EVP Connie Major. "And different types of water damage are covered by different types of insurance."
Indeed, for as many different forms water has taken on in New Orleans, there are as many different types of insurance. Wind insurance versus flood insurance. Homeowner's insurance. Contents insurance versus structural insurance.
The different types of water and the different types of insurance that covers those types of water have wreaked almost as much havoc as the water itself.
"About 75% of St. Bernard's Parish didn't have flood insurance," said Cheryl Oggs, EVP at LCUL and a resident of St. Bernard's Parish whose home, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists.
St. Bernard's was hit with the double-whammy of being flooded when the levees broke and then suffering an oil spill when nearby Murphy's Oil had a tank leak after the water shuffled the tank right off its foundation. For three weeks, not only did all of Oggs' worldly possessions ferment under brackish flood water and the muck it brought with it, but also under the toxic effluvia of the oil spill.
"You see these people drive up to their homes with these U-Hauls they've rented so they can salvage as much as they can, and when they come out, they've got maybe a handful of jewelry and trinkets, and that's it," said Mia Perez, marketing director of GNO FCU.
Disaster Plan Lessons: Remember The Staples
NEW ORLEANS-State leagues often serve as both a back-up and a command center for its member credit unions in an emergency, but what happens when the league itself is part of the disaster?
"That's one of the big differences between what we went through in Florida with that horrible hurricane season last year and what has happened in Louisiana this year," said Florida CU League's Mark Ivester. "Our offices were never directly impacted by any of the four storms that hit our state last year."
But the Louisiana CU League still hasn't been allowed to move back to its building seven weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, even though the New Orleans suburb of Harahan, where the league offices are located, is relatively accessible.
"CUNA Mutual Group owns our building, and they have asked us to wait until they can get a structural engineer to inspect the building to make sure it is sound before we move back in," said LCUL President Anne Cochran. In the meantime, the league has been sharing space with Bayou FCU in Baton Rouge, which graciously invited the league to make its temporary home at one of its branches.
Disaster plans usually take into account the big picture things: back-up data tapes, alternative sites, how to contact key staff, etc. Unfortunately, sometimes it's the little things that throw you for a loop.
"We've essentially had to put together an office from scratch," said LCUL EVP Connie Major. "We had office space, we had contact numbers and how to find people, but we didn't have basic office supplies. We, like many others, will have to rethink our disaster plan, right down to the paper clips. At one point, we were functioning with one stapler for the entire staff."
Complicating matters was the fact that most people assumed they needed to plan to be gone for just a couple of days, not a couple of weeks, or even months.
"We need to put together a survival box, and you put in it what you would need to take with you if you had to be gone for two weeks or more," Major offered. "Credit unions everywhere need to do more than just create a disaster plan, put it up on the shelf and dust it off to show it to the examiner. They need to review it frequently and do regular dry runs to make sure they work. We had credit unions that had back-up tapes, but they didn't take them with them, or they had back-up tapes with them, but they didn't know how to load them and get them up and running. That can't happen again."
All State Helps Give Directions To CUs
METAIRIE-The Louisiana CU League's Metairie Shared Service Center has a new neighbor: the camper that houses one of All State Insurance's mobile units that was deployed to assess the damage from Hurricane Katrina.
The shared service center building will again be habitable at some point, but seven weeks after the storm hit, it still was in no condition to open to serve credit union members.
While The Credit Union Journal was touring the building, several members walked up to get service and had to be turned away. Fortunately, staff was able to give the members directions to a stable of locations not too far away that have already been up and running for some time.
That's when the folks at All State suggested they might be able to help. CU staff usually aren't on hand at the service center while the building is still undergoing rehab from the storm, so CU members have been asking the only people they could find where they should go for CU service: the All State Insurance camper.
Upon discovering credit union league staffers in their midst, the people at All State offered to hand out maps and directions to alternative shared service centers to anyone who comes looking for service.
Focus Paid Off In Tub Full Of Benefits
NEW ORLEANS-Seeing as how New Orleans Firemen's FCU's field of membership is made up of people who make their living by going into disasters on a daily basis, it should come as no surprise that the credit union took its disaster planning a little more seriously than most-and that singular focus on disaster recovery has paid off in spades in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"You learn a lot about what works and what doesn't," said NOFFCU CEO Judy DeLucca. "Cell phones don't work after a hurricane, but those little Nextel phones with walkie-talkies worked when the cell phones didn't, and we were able to stay in communication that way."
The credit union religiously holds a disaster recovery planning session not every year, not every quarter or every month but every Tuesday.
"Every Tuesday Janell would talk about what to put in the tubs, what needed to be restocked or checked," DeLucca noted. "We took it very seriously, and those tubs really paid off."
The aforementioned tubs-simple, large, plastic containers-have taken on almost a legendary aspect at NOFFCU. Each department is required to have a Disaster Recovery Kit, aka a tub, and each tub is to be filled with all the things that would be needed to get that department up and running in the event of a disaster.
Sure, the tubs have some important contact information and are designed to carry any important supplies, files and other resources that might be needed, but the tubs also have all kinds of goodies that become both luxuries and necessities after a disaster: rubber gloves, respirator masks, rain ponchos, wet wipes, flash lights, first aid kits, fans, tarps, disposable cameras, you name it.
"The trick is to think of everything," noted Administrative Assistant Janell Nunez, queen of the tubs. "And then you have to remember that batteries die, other supplies wear out or dry out. You have to go through the tubs regularly to make sure they're properly stocked."
But the other trick is to have access to the tubs. NOFFCU's New Orleans East branch was under several feet of water for three weeks, and the tub was stuck inside the branch. "I'm almost afraid to open it," said Branch Manager Kathy Dionne.
Both Nunez and Dionne are among the staffers who wish they'd had similar magic tubs for their homes, both of which were completely destroyed by the storm.
Noting how lackadaisical many New Orleanians were about evacuating for the storm, Dionne noted, "if we could relive that weekend right before the storm hit, things would be so different now."
Firemen To The Rescue
NEW ORLEANS-When your credit union serves first responders, you had better be ready to serve them no matter what, and that's exactly what New Orleans Firemen's FCU set out to do in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"As soon as we came back, we opened our Algiers branch even while the area was still under martial law," related NOFFCU CEO Judy DeLucca. "The fire department was staged right across the street from the branch, which definitely worked to our advantage. Not only were we very convenient to them, but we didn't have any problems with looters. Apparently all those uniforms just across the street from us were a deterrent. We opened our branch before the ban was listed because our members were there, and we had to serve them. We opened up service to anyone who was assisting with the rescue and recovery efforts. If they had the official Katrina Command badge, we served them."
All But Four Have Returned To Work
NEW ORLEANS-The only way a credit union can continue to serve its membership after something as devastating as Hurricane Katrina is to make sure the employees are taken care of, and New Orleans Firemen's FCU has bent over backwards to do just that.
The proof is in the number of employees who have returned to work. "We only lost four employees, and those were mostly employees whose spouses have been transferred somewhere else or taken jobs wherever it is they evacuated to," said NOFFCU HR Director Cami Crouchet. "That's not bad out of 57 employees."
Especially when you consider that of those 57 employees, 19 have lost their homes and another nine had homes so significantly damaged that they don't know when they'll be able to move back in. That's just about half of the CU's staff.
Some 16 employees were deployed to Houston to man a call center but have since returned.
The credit union continues to work to find long-term temporary housing for its staff, a number of whom are currently living in offices at several of the CU's branches.
"For the first two weeks, we fed them, but now they are buying their own groceries," NOFFCU CEO Judy DeLucca explained. "We bought refrigerators, washer/dryers, because we knew we wouldn't get stuck with them."
The credit union also rented a vehicle so that staff employees who are currently commuting over much longer distances to get to work can carpool and save on the gas and wear and tear on their own cars.
While NOFFCU has seen the majority of its staff return to work, other credit unions haven't been so lucky. "We hear about credit unions who still can't find a lot of their employees," DeLucca observed. "The key is you have to build that relationship with your staff before something happens. Our board believes our staff is our most important resource, and it shows. Our staff returned. They did whatever it took to serve our members, and there are no job descriptions that could cover what all they had to do."