Sunshine State of Emergency: Hurricane Vets Offer Advice

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It may be called "The Sunshine State" but it's also developed something of a reputation for hurricanes, so it's no surprise that Florida credit unions and the Florida CU League have become de facto experts on disaster recovery.

"We're indeed fortunate to be in a state where the state government is so well prepared for disasters," FCUL President Guy Hood said, noting the state has been holding disaster recovery workshops for financial institutions. "We are seeing credit unions doing even better with preparedness. They are paying great attention to the details, the drills, the exercises. They're making operational changes and testing those changes."

Having been ravaged by four hurricanes in just a few months' time in the 2004 hurricane season, Florida thought it had seen it all. And then Katrina hit New Orleans.

"We have learned a lot from Katrina," Hood noted. "How difficult it was for credit unions to find and talk with their employees, and even to find and talk with their members."

"The league has been working closely with the state government for a long, long time," added Mark Ivester, spokesperson for the league. "We learned a huge lesson with [Hurricane] Andrew [in 1994]. Louisiana and Mississippi learned a huge lesson with Katrina."

Hood also said the league has noted a number of credit unions installing generators-both permanent and portable-for back-up power. Three counties in South Florida are actually working to have gas stations be required to have standby power to pump gas, he added.

The league also has three satellite phones on hand that it deploys to strategic areas ahead of a storm.

One of the things not even storm-torn Florida has down to a science is delivery of currency.

"I believe we have to work on better solutions for emergency currency delivery. You cannot rely on regular armored car service after a hurricane. They can't deliver money until UPS can deliver packages," Hood related. "Last year one credit union requested a SWAT team escort to help deliver cash to Keesler Federal Credit Union. We have asked U.S. Central and the Association of Corporate Credit Unions to take a look at this, and if they are not able to come up with a good solution, we'll try to identify a network of credit unions that can contact a police escort, for example."

The league is also putting together a network of credit unions to work in tandem with their local Red Cross agencies. "We had several thousand refugees from Katrina. The Red Cross called the banks to ask them to open up over Labor Day weekend to cash Red Cross vouchers for the refugees, and the banks said they couldn't do it because their time vaults wouldn't open over the weekend, so the Red Cross turned to credit unions. We want to have that partnership in place ahead of time. Because nimbleness does count in these situations."

FCUL is meeting with fuel distributors to explore how fuel can be delivered to areas where the power is out, making it impossible to pump existing fuel.

One of the dangers of the hyper-awareness of hurricanes is the potential for people to "forget" that there are other disasters, too, Hood noted.

"Floods, hurricanes, and, God forbid, terrorist attacks are all very real, and every disaster has its own characteristics," he observed. "I hope that credit unions in other parts of the country are learning from our experiences, and I think they are. One gauge of that is the tremendous response to the National Credit Union Foundation. But I have to say, I don't detect the same sense of urgency among our counterparts in other parts of the country, but there is awareness.

"We're coordinating even better with CUNA Mutual Group, with the corporates, with the regulators," Hood added.

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