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JOPLIN, Mo.-The twisters that leveled much of this city last week cut a path of destruction wide and long.

But how deeply the deadly storm affected the townspeople can't be captured in headlines and photos, attests Cindy Atteberry, who is challenged to put back together her own life, the lives of her members, and the future of her credit union.

The CEO of Joplin Metro CU rode out the storm with her husband in the basement of their home that was ripped off its foundation, telling Credit Union Journal that she's lucky to be alive (see related story). For the leader of the $24-million CU, the aftermath means not only dealing with all the damage and finding a new place to live, it also means providing loans and support to members, and eventually seeking ways to battle an onset of delinquencies and bankruptcies that are likely to occur.

"My concerns are with my employees, members, and their families. This devastation is terrible to look at," said Atteberry. "I have lived here for 57 years and I do not recognize this town. Landmarks, entire subdivisions, and hundreds of businesses are all gone."

The loss of businesses will mean countless people are out of work and will need the credit union's support, and Joplin Metro moved quickly to offer a low-rate emergency loan. But the CEO knows the credit union will need to take a careful look at its own future, as well, because Atteberry understands many members will not be able to live up to their existing obligations without employment.

"It's going to take a long time for this city to get back on its feet," said Atteberry. "For the credit union's future, we have to do something, because we know our delinquencies will likely be phenomenal again. I think we had $385,000 in bankruptcies last year, and we were getting through that. I was thinking things are getting better, and now this."

Four Credit Unions Affected

Structural damage to the credit union's two locations was minor; offices were closed for one day without computer access and security. All four CUs in this city were damaged by the tornadoes that killed at least 125 people. Also affected were the $15-million District 7 Highway CU that suffered only minor damage, $286-million Great Plains FCU, and the $131-million Postal Federal Community CU, which had windows and doors blown out. District 7 was closed for one day due to lack of power, and Postal Federal got its drive-through operating within 24 hours after it got under generator power. Great Plains was not operating last week and had switched Joplin operations to its Carthage, Mo., location. Great Plains CEO Ken Martin could not be reached.

According to reports at press time, no CU employees were harmed, however many were among the more than 1,000 who lost their homes. All of the credit unions reported that they are offering emergency low-interest loans and are prepared for the inflow of insurance checks that already are coming in.

The Missouri CU Association told Credit Union Journal that the devastation, downed communications and power lines, and ongoing searches for missing residents made it difficult to discern the level of loss among the four credit unions' members. MCUA President Mike Beall is concerned for the townspeople and for the CUs in a city in which the future is uncertain.

"Each of these credit unions has some unique challenges that I don't think we fully understand yet. We will look at a lot of options and work with regulators to see if we can help them through this," stated Beall, who noted NCUA's enactment of its disaster relief policy will allow CUs to make loans with special terms to affected members and guarantees affected credit unions lines of credit through the NCUSIF. "The main thing to do right now--and it is what the credit unions are focused on--is helping members."

Beall acknowledged that his concerns about the future of the credit unions is greater for the smaller District 7 and Joplin Metro.

Postal Federal EVP Craig Tabor said his board has discussed what the CU might do to provide long-term support for a town that will have to rebuild, but talks have been centered mostly on meeting immediate needs. A 30-day loan at 0% is in place for those without a job, along with a 24-month signature loan at 6%. "We are trying to do whatever we can to help our members get through the next 30 to 60 days."

Auto loans may be a big part of that relief for a while, according to Tabor. "I think transportation will be one of the basic needs. If you were in the path of the storm, your vehicle is gone. I saw trucks up in trees."

PFFCU also reached out to the townspeople from its damaged branch by providing computer and Internet use, a charging station, and refreshments. One of the first tasks was charging an elderly woman's wheelchair that was low on power.

A little more than 24 hours after the storm hit, Justin Coyne, CEO of District 7 Highway CU, was running his credit union by himself, telling his two employees to stay home and tend to their damaged houses.

"We are on 7th Street and the storm ripped through a huge part of 20th ," Coyne told the Journal. "There is just a lot of trash in our lot and on windows-a lot of it is insulation from homes. We were lucky."

Where To Make Donations

The National Credit Union Foundation activated CUAid at the request of the Missouri CU Association. MCUA has made a donation of $10,000 to CUAid and contributions from credit unions and leagues have poured in, bringing the total last week to more than $50,000 in less than a day. The credit unions have been distributing CUAid forms to employees and affected members. MCUA also made a $5,000 contribution to the American Red Cross for Missouri tornado victims. Credit unions can donate to help the Joplin CUs at www.cuaid.coop.

MCUA's Beall noted that with all the rebuilding that is to come, credit unions here will play a key role making loans. But another task just as important, he reminded, is being financial advisors to members who receive large insurance payouts. "It is time to step up to make sure members make good decisions with their settlement money because people can prey on them."

Tabor said what's most important to Postal Federal now is its relationship with its members and supporting the town.

"We are doing anything we can to help. As I walk through what is left of this city I am amazed at the spirit of the people, most of whom feel lucky to be alive. I have been in three tornadoes in my life and I cannot describe the devastation. When you see it on TV or hear people talking about it, you don't really understand what has happened here. You can't."

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