Numerous CUs Remain Closed

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State leagues along the Gulf Coast are still working to identify credit unions hit by Hurricane Rita even as the Louisiana league continued to distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to CU employees displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Packing a one-two punch to the Gulf Coast region, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have rendered a number of credit unions "non-operational" and continue to make communications and other logistics of serving members a challenge.

"When you have no power and cannot access your facility, it is challenging to get things up and running," said Dick Ensweiler, CEO of the Texas Credit Union League. "However, credit unions around the state are pitching in to offer temporary office space, technical support and emergency services for displaced credit union members. Today, we have made great strides in reestablishing service to tens of thousands of displaced credit union members."

In Texas, already bulging with evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi escaping Katrina's wrath, CUs were seeking ways to get back to business after Hurricane Rita.

TCUL reported it was tracking 48 credit unions with 60 branches in the southeast portion of the state. At press time, 19 were fully operational, 12 were partially operational and nine were non-operational, with eight that the league still hasn't been able to contact.

Just as it was in Louisiana, shared service centers have been a boon to credit unions hit by the storms (see item, left).

Even as LCUL worked to determine the fate of about 45 credit unions in the southwestern portion of the state hit by Hurricane Rita, the league had already distributed more than $320,000 to credit union employees displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

"There are 45 credit unions that we're worried about (with respect to Hurricane Rita)," said LCUL spokesperson Alicia Blanda. "From what we can tell, credit unions east of Lake Charles did very well. But the ones in Lake Charles were just east of the eye, so they really were right in the path. There are 22 credit unions in the Lake Charles area. Early indications are that it was not nearly as bad as expected."

Like Katrina, Rita peaked at a Category 5 storm but then weakened before making landfall. While Katrina was still a Category 4 storm when she hit, Rita had downgraded to a Category 3. The fact that Rita was somewhat weaker combined with the region being more prepared for the storm helped to lessen the impact of Rita compared to Katrina.

"It was a weaker storm, but you also didn't have the unique (topographical) situation of New Orleans being below sea level," Blanda noted. "Plus, people were scared from what they had seen happen in New Orleans after Katrina, so people took the evacuation orders very seriously. Most of our credit unions are fine. Their employees all evacuated and all called in, but they are unable to get back into (Lake Charles) until (Oct. 3)."

So far, the credit union movement has pledged well over $3 million to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, with the majority of the financial donations going to the American Red Cross and the National CU Foundation. CUNA Mutual Group, Southwest Corporate Federal Credit Union, the Florida CU Foundation, the Texas CU Foundation and others have all made large contributions to the fund.

As the Florida League learned last year after that state was pummeled by four major hurricanes, sometimes the hard part isn't raising the money-it's distributing it.

In this first phase of disbursements, $500 grants are being given to CU employees with property damaged or destroyed by the storms, with a total of $320,000 having been disbursed so far.

"The priority we've established is to help league and credit union employees first," Ensweiler said. "Credit unions can only be of help to their members if their employees are in a position to help themselves and focus on work."

"It is extremely pleasing to be able to help credit union employees who have suffered so much because of the recent storms," LCUL CEO Anne Cochran said. "Helping credit union employees get back on their feet so that they can begin the challenging process of getting their credit unions up and running seems like the logical first step to us."

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