Lessons In Spreading The Word That The CU Is Open For Biz

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In the days and weeks after Hurricane Ivan hit here, the primary concern of credit unions was getting back up and running to serve their members. But it doesn't much matter that the credit union is open for business if no one knows it.

That's why the Florida Credit Union League and one PR-minded credit union staffer have made it their mission to get the word out about credit union recovery efforts.

"Most of the credit unions are up and running, though some do have branches that will remain closed indefinitely," said FCUL's Mark Ivester. "But what we're finding is, all people want to know is 'Where do I go?' They need to know where they can get access. Just ask Kurt Stenerson at Escambia County Employees CU."

Indeed, Stenerson became the self-appointed PR person for the dozen credit unions in the Pensacola area. "I saw that the banks were getting the word out about what they were doing, and they were getting a lot of media attention and I thought, 'You know, we're doing all that, too, and we're doing as fast or faster, only no one knows about it.' So, I just sort of took it upon myself."

Continuous Updates

The league, with Stenerson's help and the help of all the credit unions in the area, has been providing continuous updates of recovery efforts. While the league is primarily relying on e-mail and its website to keep the credit union community abreast of what's going on here, the credit unions themselves have had to go decided low-tech.

"You know, a lot of their members still don't have power and still don't have phones, so they're handing out lists in their lobbies of credit union branches and ATMs that are up and running," Ivester explained.

Hurricane survivors have learned to fear and respect things like storm surge, winds well in excess of 100 mph and how those winds can turn a simple coconut (or the tree it flew off of) into a deadly weapon-but they also have a healthy appreciation for electricity and telecommunications. These are things that aren't shown in the dramatic footage on "The Weather Channel" and in newspapers, but for most credit unions and their neighbors, these are the things that really take their toll.

"It's amazing to see all the power trucks and other recovery workers here," Stenerson related. "They're coming in from all over the country: Wisconsin, New York, Iowa."

When FCUL put out a call for generators and mobile branches, credit unions from all over the nation called. "We got a call from Spokane Teachers in Spokane, Wash., offering a mobile ATM," Ivester recounted. "While we are deeply grateful for their offer, we told them to hold off on sending it out way. It would be days before it could get here, and we had other options closer to home."

Campus USA CU in Gainesville, Fla., for example, which has been lucky so far during this hurricane season, has sent one of its mobile operations to the Pensacola area.

And, in comparison to some of their members' and employees' homes, credit unions have fared well, with most facilities having power restored within the first six days after the storm, even as residents are being told by Gulf Power that it could be as many as three weeks before power is restored to the entire region.

Another "hidden" cost of hurricanes: curfews and getting enough employees in to keep the credit union going.

"Some credit unions are up and running and have full power restored, but they're still having to close down at 2 p.m. because they simply can't get enough people in to work," Ivester commented.

Can't Get To Work

In some cases, employees have lost their homes and are too busy trying to attend to the basic needs of living to get in to work. In other cases, transportation is the culprit, as numerous bridges and roads are still washed out, making it extremely difficult-and sometimes dangerous- for some employees to get into work. "It's not that these employees aren't good workers or aren't dedicated, it's that they simply can't get there," Ivester explained.

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