The Big Un-Easy

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It is six weeks after Katrina, and it is still a mess.

"You look at the trees, and it's like someone just took a box of matches, threw them up into the air and then they landed back on the ground in a heap," said GNO FCU's Mia Perez. "It's just heartbreaking to see."

Where the trees aren't uprooted, they are snapped in two. Where the trees still stand, they are obviously in shock, struggling to overcome the brackish flood waters that seemed to touch everything before beginning to recede.

It is much the same for the people and the credit unions of New Orleans, their paths in life thrown awry by the winds, the rain, and the water that just wouldn't go away.

"If the levees hadn't broken, this wouldn't even be a story," said Louisiana Credit Union League Spokesperson Alicia Blanda. "This would be a Mississippi story, not a New Orleans story."

But just a simple drive through the city that has finally reopened shows New Orleans has plenty of stories to tell, if only trees could talk.

Exploring the New Orleans East branch of New Orleans Firemen's FCU right alongside NOFFCU staff, including Branch Manager Kathy Dionne, was a gut wrenching experience. Dionne was seeing her own office for the first time since the storm hit.

The high water mark about midway up the wall was just inches below a framed piece of artwork that was one of the few unscathed items in the entire branch. Reaching for the picture to take it with her, Dionne explained that it was given to her by her staff on boss' day last year.

Her pleasure in finding the picture unmarred by water damage was significantly tempered by everything else inside the branch. Masks had to be worn to help keep the overpowering stench at bay. Rubber boots protected the feet from the now-dried muck on the floor that created a rancid mosaic across the entire room.

Furniture-heavy furniture- looked as if it had been tossed by giants in need of a ball for a game of catch.

Donning a pair of gloves and a rain poncho to keep the mold and muck off, Dionne reached behind a small end table to salvage some other personal effects.

"This was given to me by our senior MSR," she said, holding up a toy fire truck that is actually a music box. "I think it might still work," she said, winding the box up, but instead of emitting music, a stream of water came coursing out of the truck. "Well, maybe not," she sighed.

Dionne, whose own home-a lakefront condo she had only lived in for just six weeks before the storm hit-was destroyed, was joined by CEO Judy D'Lucca and at least one other employee. They attempted to gain access to the teller line that was still behind glass and walls, to no avail. But where some of the tellers' personal affects were within reach, they were gathered up to be brought back to their rightful owners.

Dionne's home was destroyed. Indeed, of NOFFCU's 57 employees, 19 lost their homes, and nine staffers' homes are indefinitely uninhabitable. Finding housing for them was a top priority for the credit union.

"We immediately set to work looking for housing," DiLucca related. Two employees currently live on the second floor of the CU's main office in what is otherwise the business development department.

"We already had a kitchen up there, and we're putting in a washer-dryer," DiLucca offered. "We took the men's room and installed a shower. We bought inflatable mattresses, and now this is home for them."

Six more employees live above NOFFCU's St. James Branch. The credit union was able to find apartments and trailers for some of its other employees.

Competing With Burger King

NOFFCU's Herculean efforts to help get its employees back on their feet reflects what a hot commodity human resources have become.

"One of the biggest challenges facing credit unions right now is staffing," said LCUL's Connie Major. "Just look at Burger King. They're offering a $6,000 signing bonus because they are that desperate for staff."

The same story could be told of credit union membership, as well. NOFFCU's New Orleans East branch was specifically opened to serve the CU's low-income community membership-a membership that by and large has little or nothing to come home to and haven't come home in large numbers, as yet.

With clean-up crews and military about the only people to be found in certain parts of New Orleans, DiLucca scanned the still-abandoned buildings right around the CU's benighted branch and said, "I look around, and I just don't know what to think," she said. "This branch was supported by the community, and the community's not here. I just look around, and I think, what do you do?"

And when members call, the big question often is, what can be done to help.

"It's like grief counseling," Perez commented. "They'll call, and you hear a slight tremor in their voice, but they're fine, right up until the moment when you ask them where to send something to them...and that's when they break down."

It's a feeling GNO FCU can relate to, because not only did some of its staff lose their homes, but so did the credit union itself, up until recently, GNO was operating out of Neighbors FCU until it was finally able to open its branch in Metairie. One of its other branches in New Orleans proper was under about six feet of water, and the CU had yet to go inspect what is left of that location.

Even more than a month after the storm, there are still too many questions that can't be answered, even things that seem like they should be obvious.

"Credit unions across the country have been so generous with their offers," Perez related. "They call and ask, 'how can we help, how can we help?' And the problem is, we don't know."

When one credit union called to see if GNO needed any computer equipment. Imagine the surprise on the other end of the phone when Perez said, "no, but you know what we really need? We really need cardboard boxes."

The credit union was trying to salvage its records and get them out of harm's way when Hurricane Rita came calling. "Boxes couldn't be found within a 100 mile radius of here," she explained. "They were like gold."

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