NM Fire Leads To Evacuation, Cooperation

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LOS ALAMOS, N.M.-The cooperative nature of CUs was on display as this New Mexico town survived a six-day evacuation forced by the largest forest fire in the state's history.

In addition to being home to the legendary Los Alamos National Laboratory, the city is also home to three credit unions: Del Norte CU, Los Alamos Schools CU and Zia CU. Del Norte was chartered in Los Alamos and was the city's first financial institution, but has since shifted its headquarters to Santa Fe, approximately 35 miles away.

When the fire roared out of the forest that surrounds Los Alamos, the city was evacuated. For Del Norte CU it was a relatively simple matter of closing one of its six branches. For Matt Schmidt, CEO of $15-million Los Alamos Schools CU, it was a 45-minute frenzy of activity as the staff packed all essential materials for operating the credit union in the back of his pickup truck. But the tiny CU found a temporary home at Del Norte CU, which offered a conference room in its facility in Santa Fe.

Schmidt said the memory of the area's last big fire, which took place 11 years ago, was weighing heavily on his mind as he placed computers in his vehicle. "No structures were damaged in this fire, unlike May 2000 when 300 homes were burned," he recalled. "We had lived through it once before so we were prepared to evacuate."

By coincidence, the board of Los Alamos Schools CU had reviewed its disaster recovery policy just the week before the fire, Schmidt said. Another factor that made the evacuation easier was the network of local CUs that has been in place for years in northern New Mexico. Schmidt said Chuck Valenti, CEO of Del Norte CU, had told him to call any time he needed help-so he did.

One day later, it was operating out of that conference room.

"Being small we don't have a lot of equipment, and with the help of the IT people at Del Norte we were set up in a real-time environment so our members could use their debit and credit cards," Schmidt said. "Del Norte stayed open late on [June 27] so we could get set up. I was able to unload our equipment into their conference room and got everything connected. Our Internet service provider came out at 9 a.m. the next day and set up a secure connection."

Thanks to Schmidt's smart phone, LASCU was able to update its website with notices to members, in some cases twice a day. "Ten years ago this technology was not available," he said. "This time we could let our members know what to expect."

For Del Norte CU's Valenti, giving Los Alamos Schools CU a temporary home was no big deal. "Every quarter we have a meeting of northern New Mexico credit unions. We are a close group and discuss ways to help each other out," Valenti said. "I knew Matt and had offered to help out in other ways, so he felt comfortable calling us. We were happy to help out."

Lessons Learned

Los Alamos Schools CU's Schmidt said the fire and resulting evacuation proved once again the importance of disaster planning.

"Even though we were prepared with our policy, there were little things that came up," he said. "We have a standard phone answering system. But when that line went down people were being rolled over. Now we will use our phone provider's messaging service. It is important to be able to keep people up to date."

After the CU's staff loaded Schmidt's truck, they scattered to their respective homes. Schmidt's wife and kids had already left town, leaving him with one more important task.

"I had printers and keyboards in the bed of my truck. I threw a blanket over everything and then loaded my dog and cat and drove to Santa Fe.

"Everybody really came through and worked with us," Schmidt added. "We owe Chuck Valenti and the staff at Del Norte a big thanks. Everyone was so hospitable and so generous. I couldn't have asked for a better experience. You'd never see banks hosting each other like that."

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