Shareholders of First Bank System Inc. heard a softer side of their tough-minded chief executive officer at the company's annual meeting Thursday.

CEO John Grundhofer, nicknamed "Jack the Ripper" for his cost-cutting ways, sounded saintly instead as he quickly ticked off steps the $36 billion-asset company is taking to help customers and employees devastated by Red River Valley flooding.

"We are really, today, responding to the immediate needs ... the terrible tragedy these people are experiencing," he said. "It's really too early to tell what we're going to finally do."

First Bank's efforts illustrate what banks across the region are doing since the flooding forced tens of thousands of North Dakotans and Minnesotans from their homes.

In Grand Forks, N.D., the flood came so fast that many people fled their homes without their checkbooks or ATM cards. So tops on the list of immediate needs was giving people access to their money.

Early last week First Bank, which has $240 million of deposits in Grand Forks alone, opened temporary branches in a nearby truck stop and a grocery store in Crookston, Minn., 25 miles away, where many flood victims have been relocated.

Those operations were supplemented by two mobile home-based branches that were dispatched to the area Thursday.

Bankers who yearn for the old pretechnology days would love these temporary outposts. "Everything is done purely on paper," said Bruce Soma, a leader of the bank's disaster recovery team. "We hand-write the receipts and process it all afterward."

Security is a concern in the cash-handling operations. Extra guards have been hired, and each facility comes equipped with its own armored car.

No cost estimate was available. But the company has been generous: Having made a $100,000 donation to the Red Cross, it is now matching employee contributions to flood-relief efforts.

It also is gearing up for an expected onslaught of customers seeking loans for repairs and has announced that flood victims can defer payments on most loans for six months. Affected customers can also cash in certificates of deposit without penalty through June.

Meanwhile, the company is waiting for the waters to subside before assessing damage to its three branches in the Grand Forks area.

Cash and safe deposit boxes are kept in vaults that, in theory, are watertight. "But you don't fill your lobby with water to test it," Mr. Soma said. "So we'll have to wait and see."

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