Many CUs Remain Unaccounted For In Wake Of Hurricane Katrina

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Many of the credit union victims of Hurricane Katrina are still scattered all across the country, unable to return to what is left-if anything-of their homes and their financial institutions, and the efforts to assist the battered Gulf Coast states are just as widespread, with offers of assistance coming in from every part of the nation.

At press time, Mississippi CU League President Charles Elliot had informed CUNA the league has been unable to contact a single credit union in the beleaguered southern portion of the state, and in watching television news footage of the region, Elliot said he has seen locations where credit unions are supposed to be-but there's nothing there.

Also at press time, the Alabama CU League was still trying to contact approximately 30 of the 50-some CUs located near Mobile Bay, the hardest hit area in the state.

The good news: the 20 CUs the league has been able to contact came through pretty well, according to Will McCarty, VP-governmental and public affairs and staff counsel. The bad news: in all likelihood, the ones the league can't contact are most in need of assistance.

"We're calling as many credit unions as we can, and most are reporting that they are fine. There's some water damage and some roof damage, but so far, we haven't heard anything catastrophic," McCarty reported.

One of the most vulnerable of Alabama's CUs, Docks & Terminal CU, which serves workers at the port in Mobile Bay, had some flood damage and is currently operating out of Azalea City CU.

Even though there is only a small portion of the state along the Gulf Coast, McCarty explained that even midway up the Western border of the state as far north as Tuscaloosa the effects of the storm were felt. "More than half the state is without power, and we have someone in Tuscaloosa who is actually driving around in her car to find out how credit unions are doing because the phones aren't working," he told The Credit Union Journal.

Located in Harahan, La., a suburb of New Orleans, the Louisiana CU League's offices are believed to be completely underwater, and with the majority of the staff having sought refuge elsewhere, the league continues to work with its credit unions to assess damage and regroup. LCUL has set up a temporary command center at its Baton Rouge office.

Louisiana League CEO Operating From Colorado

The league began receiving reports from credit unions in the affected areas late last week, according to CEO Anne Cochran, who spoke with The Credit Union Journal from her hotel in Vail, Colo., where she and another LCUL staffer happened to be attending a CUSC users meeting when the storm hit.

"We have heard of some credit unions setting up temporary operations," Cochran reported. "UNO FCU [serving the University of New Orleans] is operating out of Birmingham, for example. We have another credit union that is operating out of Neighbors CU. AMOCO FCU has set up at our Baton Rouge Service Center."

Indeed, Louisiana's shared service center network has proven to be an essential tool in continuing to serve members, Cochran noted. "Credit unions that are part of the shared service centers network set up offline limits for their members in case their systems ever went down, so members who have evacuated to other parts of the state or even to Texas and Florida and other areas still have access through the shared service centers."

Cochran reported 40 service centers are operational in the state of Louisiana.

The state's largest credit union, Barksdale FCU outside of Shreveport, is offering a variety of services to victims of Hurricane Katrina, such as wire transfer services to non-members and members alike, and even making special loans to members of credit unions in harder hit areas of the state, according to Louisiana CU League Anne Cochran.

"Barksdale has really stepped up to the plate," Cochran said. "We hope other credit unions will look at what Barksdale is doing and see what they can do. Obviously, not everyone can make the same offers since they aren't as big as Barksdale, but this is an example of how credit unions can help each other out in times of need."

As the league continues to work to locate officials of credit unions in the hardest hit areas, the individuals who make up the Louisiana League are also trying to put the pieces of their own lives back together, and since most of them are from New Orleans, they are living in limbo, dispersed all across the country.

Calling in from a hotel room in Tifton, Ga., a town she hadn't even heard of before Katrina came calling, LCUL's Alicia Blanda told The Credit Union Journal the league had been able to account for all staff but one person.

"Our bookkeeper Gail Beaudreau is the only one we haven't heard from, yet," Blanda related. "We are hoping that it's simply because communications are still snarled. The last we heard, she was staying in New Orleans. We haven't heard from her since."

But the league has not lost hope that the long-time staffer might not have gotten out before the storm hit. "If she decided to move to higher ground, she probably called and left a message at the league office, but of course, we can't retrieve that message," Cochran explained.

And as they continue to wonder what happened to their colleague, they're also wondering what happened to their homes. "We still don't know when we can return, and we don't know if we have anything to return to," Blanda said, echoing the sentiments of countless evacuees from the Gulf States region.

Cochran said she was hoping to at least head back to Baton Rouge last weekend, but if communications weren't restored by then, she was contemplating staying right where she was in Colorado. "At least here I am able to communicate with people," she commented. "I can access e-mail, I can make phone calls, I have Internet access. I really want to get back to Louisiana, but if communications are still down, I'm probably more useful here than there."

As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works on pumping the water out of New Orleans, credit unions in the Gulf States have seen something else flood in: offers of assistance from fellow credit unions and leagues.

With no charitable foundation of its own, the Louisiana CU League is relying on the National CU Foundation to help raise money for aid to credit unions battered by Hurricane Katrina, and the national foundation has put together an emegency grant program to that end (see related story).

Advice And Help From Florida

"We still don't have a lot of information about how credit unions, and more importantly, the people, fared the storm, but we do have some people-helping-people stories to share," Blanda shared. "I contacted Mark Ivester at the Florida Credit Union league to find out how they handled the grants after the hurricanes last year, and one of the first words out of his mouth were, 'if you need a place to set up an office, we've got extra offices and extra computers, we'll set you up.'"

CUNA Mutual Group has already stepped up to the plate, as well, even though claims have yet to be filed. "They knew our communications are totally down. Cell phones aren't working, the e-mail is down, the website is down," Blanda said. "So they graciously offered to send out notices to our credit unions throughout the state to let them know that, yes, our offices are closed, but we are safe, and here's how to contact us."

The Florida CU League continues to assess the damage to CUs in the Miami and Ft. Lauderdale area but is also putting together an emergency fund to help out CUs in the harder-hit Gulf Coast-including a portion of the Florida Panhandle but primarily Louisiana and Mississippi.

"It is apparent, at this hour, looking at the devastation that Hurricane Katrina is causing in states to our west that four states, and possibly a number of their credit unions, will need our help," wrote FCUL CEO Guy Hood. "Credit unions in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and our own state of Florida have taken the full brunt of the storm's fury and I know that most of you will want to help as much as you can. Credit unions throughout the country were very generous last year in our hour of need. Soon, we'll have an opportunity to return that generosity."

HOW TO CALL, E-MAIL

ALEXANDRIA, Va.-The NCUA release also announced that a toll-free hotline number and e-mail addresses have been established to allow credit unions, credit union members and vendors to inquire about or provide information on the status of credit union operations, particularly in the areas affected by Katrina in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

The toll free number is 1-800-827-6282.

The email addresses are:

* For Alabama: KatrinaAL ncua.gov.

* For Louisiana: KatrinaLA ncua.gov.

* For Mississippi: KatrinaMS@ncua.gov.

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