California community banks are lending a helping hand to residents whose homes or businesses have been damaged by heavy rains, fallen trees, and mud slides.

In Lakeport, where the flooding of nearby Clear Lake has forced hundreds of mostly Spanish-speaking residents to evacuate their homes, Lake Community Bank dispatched its bilingual employees to emergency shelters to serve food, offer support, and help out where they could.

Lake Community has also offered its lobby to the Federal Emergency Management Association as a headquarters for residents to apply for federal aid.

"That's what a community bank is all about, to serve the needs of the community," said Gary E. Nordine, president of the $87 million-asset institution.

Heavy rains and high winds created by the El Nino weather pattern have caused more than $1 billion of damage throughout California in recent weeks. As a result, many community banks have pledged to relax repayment schedules and offered emergency loans to residents and small-business owners who may be in need.

Six Rivers National Bank in Eureka, for example, has run advertisements in local newspapers offering disaster loans at two points below the going rate for home improvement loans. And while it hasn't formally advertised the program, Lake County Bank, also near Clear Lake, is planning to offer short-term, no-fee, no-points loans to help residents buy food and other provisions.

But community banks aren't the only ones assisting storm victims. Bank of America, California's largest, is offering home equity loans of up to $25,000 with no points or fees and personal loans of up to $7,500, also with no points or fees. It has also pledged to waive early withdrawal penalties on individual retirement accounts for storm-damage victims who withdraw funds and to delay monthly payments for its credit card customers.

Still, because most consumers and business owners have insurance, few are turning to their banks for relief. At Luther Burbank Savings and Loan in flood-ravaged Santa Rosa, only one customer asked to have loan payments suspended, which the thrift agreed to do for six months.

"Between heavy rains and earthquakes, the people in California have been through a lot," said Clayton C. Larson, president of Pacific Capital Bancorp, a two-bank holding company in Salinas. With all the publicity about El Nino, he said, "we were prepared for this."

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