Bankers' Next Storm Challenge: Continuity

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As Hurricane Sandy starts to make its way inland, bankers from Virginia to Maine have shifted their efforts away from emergency preparedness to focus on post-storm crisis management.

The decision to open or close branches took place over the weekend, along with choices on staffing data centers and contacting employees. A number of banks also used social media to inform customers how to set up and use online banking should their branches remain shuttered for several days.

Bankers are looking ahead at the coming week with a realization that many of the customers, and some of their branches, could be knocked out of commission for the foreseeable future.

The storm's timing was particularly taxing for banks that process clients' payroll payments, making that a top priority for some management teams.

"The main problem is that this is the end of the month and there's a lot of payroll going on," says Gilles Gade, the chief executive of Cross River Bank in Teaneck, N.J. "We've asked customers to process their payrolls ASAP, even though the funds are not going to hit until Wednesday. But these [automatic] withdrawals will hit on the first day of the month, we don't want them to hit empty-handed and incur a lot of fees."

Cross River has been working on a system that will allow for remote deposit by cell phone, but it will not be available until February, Gade says. Still, "all the businesses that have accounts with us have remote deposit machines."

Sandy Spring Bancorp (SASR) in Olney, Md., set up a software portal to communicate with its business clients about transferring files such as payroll, says John Sadowski, the company's chief information officer. "If those clients don't have power, we have to figure out how they can get information to us, so that portal is our busiest one."

Sadowski and his colleagues have also been focusing on cash, generators and fuel. The $3.9 billion-asset company included those items on an extensive checklist, lining up a fuel company and a backup provider. "One of the things we've realized in the banking world is we have official hours but we also have unofficial hours," he says.

Another key for bankers included plans to ensure that their branches would be up and running soon after the storm passed. "We have contracts with third-party servicers with remote servers and we back up all systems with a remote backup system," says Bill Ridenour, the president, chief administrative officer and chief credit officer at John Marshall Bank in Reston, Va.

Ridenour says his bank's backup system is run on generators. While the bank doesn't plan for many hurricanes, it does have an emergency plan for winter storms. "To be honest, it's pretty much the same process," he says.

Sump pumps were considered a necessity at Sun Bancorp (SNBC) in Vineland, N.J., to prepare for heavy rain and flooding. "We also have a toll-free hotline to inform employees about openings, closings and related issues," says spokeswoman Heather Hardwick.

Business continuity plans for banks should include fully stocked automated teller machines and having emergency staff ready to act once the storm has passed, says Viveca Ware, the senior vice president of regulatory policy for the Independent Community Bankers of America. Emergency personnel typically consists of tellers and anyone involved with information technology.

"One of the benefits of a hurricane is that you know it's coming," Ware says. "So you do have time to make sure everything is in place when you do activate your business continuity plan."

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