Tennessee bankers start to assess tornado damage

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By Jim Dobbs and Ken McCarthy

Banks and residents are still assessing the damage caused by a tornado that devastated swaths of central Tenneessee.

The tornado, which touched down early Tuesday morning, toppled buildings, ripped roofs off homes and showered streets with debris. City officials in Nashville reported hundreds of emergency calls and authorities attributed dozens of deaths to the storm.

Most of the damage around Nashville seems focused on communities north and east of the city, said Joe Bass, a longtime city resident and a spokesman for Pinnacle Financial Partners.

“Just a mile further south, and it would have hit downtown,” Bass said.

The $27.8 billion-asset Pinnacle closed three branches, two of which remained closed on Wednesday afternoon. Bankers were evaluating the tornado's impact on other locations and trying to get a handle on hardships imposed on customers and employees.

“It’s still early and very much ongoing,” Bass said of Pinnacle’s assessment and response, noting that bankers were reaching out directly to clients in the hardest-hit neighborhoods to gauge damage and figure out how best to help. It could offer special loan options to customers who need to make repairs, as it did after other hurricanes.

A portable classroom trailer frame rests on the elementary school building roof of Donelson Christian Academy destruction following a deadly tornado on March 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.
A portable classroom trailer frame rests on the elementary school building roof of Donelson Christian Academy destruction following a deadly tornado on March 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.

“There’s devastation, but it is also amazing how quickly everyone in Nashville turns from devastation to response,” Bass said. “It’s going to take time to sort everything and really assess it all, but everyone is moving fast to help.”

Stephen Scouten, an analyst at Piper Sandler, said he had spoken with a few bankers in Tennessee after the storm. He said they were preparing to provide customer-friendly concessions, including forgiveness for service charges and late-fee waivers.

“Natural disasters ultimately are insurance events more than bank events, but when the damage is significant like this, it affects everyone,” Scouten said.

Over the course of 2020, he said, local banks will likely see a bump in loan demand as customers borrow to make repairs not covered by insurance, or to pay for upgrades to their homes. Often homeowners will forge ahead with additions or enhancements since repair work is already underway.

“Over the medium term, you probably will see a pickup in real estate loan growth,” Scouten said.

Most Nashville-area banks are trying to assess the full scope of the damage to the communities and their own facilities, said Colin Barrett, president and CEO of the Tennessee Bankers Association. He said that Putnam County, east of Nashville, was hit hard and that banks there were working to make sure residents had access to cash.

"People have lost everything, so our banks are doing what banks do," Barrett said. "Right now, we're very much in a disaster recovery mode."

Some banks were considering using temporary ATMs to help customers get cash. One issue is that power remains out in many parts of the city, including the area where the state banking association has its office.

"We're down right now," Barrett said. "All my conversations this morning have been via cellphone, text or LinkedIn or Twitter."

The heart of the storm hit about a mile from Barrett's home, but some of the association's staff members had closer calls. One employee told Barrett that the windows of multiple neighbors' homes were blown out.

Jim Rieniets, CEO of InsBank in Nashville, said he was out of town when the storm hit. He said that his daughter is performing in a community theater group in a church, and that its steeple was torn off by the winds.

Some InsBank clients were affected. Rieniets said that the assessessment was continuing and that none of his bank's branches were damaged.

Rieniets said the bank will work with customers who have issues on a case-by-case basis.

"All around there it's just a mess," he said. "It's pretty crazy."

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