Pull The Shades. Turn Off The TV. Who Knows What's Next?

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So what will it be this week? Solar flares? Locusts? FEMA taking over NCUA?

Like Cher and Madonna, we've come to know disasters by just one name. Katrina. Dennis. The blowhard quadruplets Charley, Jeanne, Frances and Ivan. 9/11. Northridge. Oklahoma City.

As unfathomable as seems the damage from Katrina to Gulfport and Biloxi and New Orleans, wasn't it just yesterday we were thinking similar things about Ivan and Pensacola? Weren't we just watching broadcast news reports from the Ft. Pierce, Florida area, where folks were still nailing down the tarps following Hurricane Jeanne when Hurricane Frances hit almost the exact same spot? Or was it the other way around? Who can remember?

As reported on page 7 in this issue, credit unions in Sri Lanka are only now reopening 10 months after the tsunami there literally wiped them off the face of the earth. Before that there were the fires of December 2004 in Southern California, the awful and all-but-forgotten flooding in Haiti, tornadoes across the Midwest, the Great Blizzards of the Northeast, power outages, and more. Are there more disasters than ever before or is it just perception?

"I think it's a little of both," answered Mike Retelle, Claims Manager in CUNA Mutual's Credit Union Protection Solutions Group. "There are more disasters affecting more people. But what happened in Oklahoma City and New York are once-in-a-lifetime aberrations, you hope."

Certainly contributing to the perception of All-Disaster, All The Time is the heavy media coverage from multiple outlets. Twenty years ago there wasn't a Weather Channel bringing the most remote hailstorm right to your living room and featuring a program called "Storm Chasers." It never features programs such as "Breezy Afternoon on the Back Porch Without A Cloud in the Sky."

In January, the United Nations reported that by its estimates more than 2.5-billion people were affected by floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters between 1994 and 2003, a 60% increase over the previous two 10-year periods.

"Are the natural disasters, the earthquakes, the floods and the occasional fires, more numerous than in the past? I don't have data for that," said Retelle. "But what we do have is more credit unions serving more members with more locations in the areas" prone to such disasters. "Credit unions have followed their members. In the old days they were founded to serve a labor union. Today they have community charters. Where there used to be maybe 17 credit unions in an affected area, today there are hundreds."

Other figures support Retelle. Belgium's University of Louvain reported that in the 1970s, only 11% of earthquakes affected human settlements, a figure that had grown to 31% in 1993-2003.

Over the years some of the most tragic disasters have taught CUNA Mutual some lessons no one would ever hope to learn. In Oklahoma City, for instance, where the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building claimed the lives of almost two-dozen workers at Federal Employees Credit Union, Retelle noted the infrastructure of the city was not producing death certificates, which are required by CUNA Mutual before paying claims. Rather than wait, it formulated a new policy that paid the claim with the assumption the death certificate would come later. Sadly, it seems that policy will need to be in place in New Orleans in the coming weeks.

One professor at the University of Colorado recently noted that, "The bottom line is we have a very unsafe planet." It's apparently not getting safer. German insurance giant Munich Re agrees, estimating that 2004 was the costliest year on record for global insurers, which paid out more than $40 billion on natural disasters. The growing toll of disasters upon humans isn't going to change. More people are expanding to "hazard-prone" areas than ever before, migrating to the Southeast and the gulf and California. The reaction of thousands of people to the four hurricanes that hit Florida? "Honey, we're moving to the Sunshine State!"

Barbara Carby, Jamaica's disaster coordinator, was recently quoted as saying she watched the effects of Hurricane Katrina upon the U.S. in disbelief. "Because (the U.S.) has the resources, they may not pay enough attention to preparedness and awareness, and to educating the public how to help themselves,"she observed.

CUNA Mutual's Retelle agrees. Insurance is all about risk and mitigation. "Preparation is the key," he said, to mitigating risk. "Disasters come in all flavors. It can be anything. When you look at New Orleans, no one ever expected such widespread damage." Retelle said a Bayou State credit union may have had a disaster plan, but it likely didn't include preparation for finding and then driving staff to another city.

"In general, with disasters, we look at what would happen if the facility was lost," he said. "Even at Northridge (California earthquake), there were other facilities around that were operational and undamaged." Other contingencies are often unimaginable. Retelle noted that in the case of Municipal Credit Union in New York, located close to Ground Zero, for instance, there was no place to put their employees. All the vacant property had been acquired.

Credit unions aren't alone in not imagining what might lie ahead. Retelle admits he never had any idea he would some day be such an experienced hand at disasters. "I never had any inkling," he said. "Not in a million years." A million years. That should keep the Weather Channel busy.

Frank J. Diekmann is Editor of The Credit Union Journal.

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