WASHINGTON — In the three years since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast's financial sector, bankers and regulators there have prepared obsessively for the next big storm.
They got it when Hurricane Gustav came ashore west of New Orleans last weekend. The storm presented the first big test of the industry's preparation efforts, and officials say they passed.
"The plans that were put in place since the last storm have resulted in a strong response," John Ducrest, commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Financial Institutions, wrote in an e-mail, since phone lines in Baton Rouge are down. "Our message is that a lot of effort has been done since Katrina and Rita by this office and the Louisiana Bankers Association to host meetings around the state between bankers and the local emergency officials to discuss processes, re-entry credentials, etc. This effort has paid tremendous dividends."
Still, the industry did not emerge unscathed. A spokesman for Regions Financial Corp. said more than 90 of its bank branches are closed in southern Louisiana. Most institutions in central and south Louisiana were closed, Mr. Ducrest said.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta said it had not been able to deliver checks to Louisiana and may not be able to do so until today.
Patrick Barron, the chief operating officer of the Atlanta Fed, said that its branch in New Orleans suffered a few broken lights and was closed Tuesday, though banks can still order currency, and the discount window remains open.
"We have worked with all the regulatory authorities in trying to ensure that all the lessons learned from Katrina were put in place," he said.
As the storm subsides, other problems could arise. Many coastal residents heeded calls to evacuate and fled to places like northern Mississippi. Mac Deaver, the president of the Mississippi Bankers Association, said the evacuees might need large sums of money this week as they consider staying or returning home.
"That will be an issue," he said. "Last time, you had a lot of high demand for cash. … Many of the local banks didn't have networks that were fully operational."
As relief money pours into the region, Mr. Deaver said, banks will have to be increasingly vigilant against fraud.
"There are also issues related to disaster payments that come in, and banks have to verify them and verify identities," he said.
Relief efforts are beginning to take shape. Terry Smith, the chief executive of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas, whose district includes southern Louisiana, said it would begin offering subsidized advances to institutions in the storm's path in the coming days. "If they're in need of Home Loan bank services, we'll provide them," he said. "They can use … [the advances] to support customers for community development and housing issues."
Regulators in Washington, who were also caught off guard three years ago, say they are monitoring the situation closely now. The response appears far more coordinated than the sometimes-disjointed efforts after Katrina.
Federal and state regulators are working through the Financial and Banking Information Infrastructure Committee to coordinate information and get a handle on the storm's aftermath. The group communicated through e-mails each hour on Tuesday, and regulators said the system was working.
The committee is "working closely to make sure that we provide services to the banks and their communities, including generators, and getting supplies that they need to open as soon as possible," Tom Dujenski, the director of the Dallas regional office of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s division of supervision and consumer protection, said in an interview. "We have worked diligently to make sure that the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina were utilized to make sure that we were prepared for such events as Hurricane Gustav."
Bankers in the affected areas have handled the situation well, he said. "Because they had good contingency plans and good coordination with the other banks in the community, most are up and operational."
State officials are aiming to coordinate their efforts. Louisiana and Mississippi banking regulators conducted conference calls with federal officials all weekend.
Some bankers felt bombarded with calls from regulators seeking status updates after Katrina, and John Allison, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Banking and Consumer Finance, said he is hoping to streamline the number of calls to institutions in the damage zone. "It got to the point last time that we were doubling up," he said. "We're going to call one time and get the answers we need, and if they need anything else, they can call us."
Regulators also spent more time preparing before the storm struck. Mr. Barron said the Atlanta Fed worked with the Treasury Department to send out payments that would have been distributed today nearly a week early.
He also said the Atlanta Fed expanded its energy capacity to help banks that might run out of fuel for generators and couriers. Examinations also included considerations of a bank's preparedness.
"Our team spent time in the impact area to make sure their contingency plans were not only well devised but also tested in case they had to be activated," he said.
Guy Williams, the president and CEO of Gulf Coast Bank and Trust in New Orleans, said preparation was clearly better for this storm.
He said New Orleans escaped the worse damage that hit communities like Baton Rouge and Houma, La. Gulf Coast's branches were not open Tuesday, because evacuees had not yet returned, but Mr. Williams said branches in Baton Rouge, Slidell, and Covington would open today.
"Our electronic bank has continued to be up and functioning with no problems," he said from his bank's main headquarters.
He said a flaw in 2005 was a lack of working communication lines for bank customers and employees to share information about trouble or damage they were experiencing during the storm. Now Gulf Coast is using multiple communication resources, including a Web site with live blogging hosted outside the area that bank employees can use to inform others if they were suffering damage to their homes.
"The big problem last time was communication," Mr. Williams said. "Everything fell apart — the cell phones became worthless, the land lines were gone, so how do you get in touch with people? We built multiple redundant ways of getting in touch, and that made a wonderful difference."
That was the experience for many of those interviewed Tuesday. Bankers "took heed from the lessons learned from Katrina, and I think they were well entrenched and implemented their plans," Mr. Allison said. "We learned a lot from Katrina."
The industry's next test could come sooner than expected. Hurricane Hanna is projected to hit anywhere from Florida to the Carolinas in the next week.
Mr. Barron said the Atlanta Fed has activated contingency plans at its branches in Jacksonville, Fla., and Miami. "It appears we're going to be busy."