Banks in Hurricane Laura's path hopeful their markets were spared worst

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Bankers in Louisiana and Texas are hopeful that their operations and communities were spared by Hurricane Laura, though they won’t know for certain until they can return to their branches and homes.

The storm hit late Wednesday, delivering heavy winds, knocking out power lines and flooding communities between Houston and New Orleans, with Lake Charles, La., taking a direct hit. Gulf Coast bankers had prepared for the hurricane, readying generators and testing contingency plans well before the storm made landfall.

Efforts shifted on Thursday, as bankers conducted preliminary damage assessments, checked on employees and sent mobile banking units to hard-hit areas. Early indications are that the recovery will be manageable.

“We work and live in all of these communities, and we know what it takes to get back on our feet and recover,” said Shane Loper, chief operating officer of the $33.2 billion-asset Hancock Whitney in Gulfport, Miss.

The Capital One Tower in Lake Charles had a number of windows blown out from Hurricane Laura.
The Capital One Tower in Lake Charles had a number of windows blown out from Hurricane Laura.

Bankers noted that most employees in vulnerable areas heeded evacuation orders ahead of the storm, minimizing the human toll. But that could also slow the reopening process because it will take employees some time to gain access to their home offices to assess the damage.

Bruce Elder, CEO of JD Bancshares in Jennings, La., said his company contacted more than 30,000 customers through email and social media, alerting them to branch closures. Most of the $1 billion-asset company’s employees in the Lake Charles area evacuated.

“If there’s any silver lining from the pandemic it’s that we had virtually 100% of our back-office support team working remotely to begin with,” Elder said.

Numerous windows were blown out of the Capital One Tower in Lake Charles, but a spokesman for the McLean, Va., company noted that the vast majority of employees have been working remotely since March.

Capital One closed branches in the storm’s path and established a team to monitor the impact, the spokesman said. Additional decisions will hinge on further assessments, he said.

CBTX, the parent of CommunityBank of Texas, set up some of its critical employees at a hotel near its Houston operations center, said Peter Cirrone, the $3.9 billion-asset company’s executive vice president of enterprise and operational risk.

While all of CommunityBank’s Houston-area branches were open on Thursday, executives are still assessing the condition of 15 branches in eastern Texas that were in the storm’s path. Four CommunityBank branches in small, rural towns had not reconnected to the broader network, indicating a lack of power.

“The majority of our branches were communicating back to the network, and that tells us they have power,” Cirrone said. “It also tells us that internet services are working.”

“Fortunately, the expected storm surge didn’t materialize quite like they thought it would,” Elder said. “There could be small handful of branches where we’ll have some work to do. ... We’re in really good shape.”

The $343 million-asset First National Bank in DeRidder in Louisiana posted on its website that its seven branches would remain closed the rest of the week.

Hancock Whitney is also assessing the condition of its locations. The company sent generators to branches that did not sustain heavy damage but still lack power. It has also deployed its mobile banking unit, as well as some contracted mobile bank branches, to affected areas to serve customers until branches are safe to reenter.

Loper said the company has also contacted clients in the catering industry to supply free meals to the community, as it did in Panama City, Fla., after Hurricane Michael nearly two years ago.

“We have essentially power gone from all of the branches or financial centers in and up around [Lake Charles] into Shreveport,” Loper said. Those branches likely sustained other physical damage, he said.

“We will know much more by the end of the day," Loper said.

Paul Davis contributed to this article.

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Natural disasters Community banks Regional banks Louisiana