WASHINGTON -- On any other day, examiners entering a credit union armed with chain saws might have caused a run on deposits.

But last week in storm-blasted areas of Florida and Louisiana, the sight of regulators cutting their way down tree-strewn highways was the first evidence that federal help was on the way.

Some 22 credit union examiners beat President Bush, the Army, and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency to many of the worst disaster zones. The reason: Federal officials waived the red tape and told the examiners to do what had to be done to get damaged institutions running again.

Making Contact

On Tuesday, Aug. 25 -- the day after Andrew leveled Homestead, Fla. -- nearly every one of the 140 credit unions in South Florida had been contacted, according Allen Carver, head of the Atlanta office of the National Credit Union Administration.

Of the 12 Florida credit unions directly in Andrew's path, only the $44 million-asset institution serving 16,000 active and retired military personnel at the Homestead Air Force Base reported serious damage.

The building, though standing, had suffered serious structural damage and will have to be replaced if the base is reopened, Mr. Carver said. The NCUA began shipping modular buildings to the base to serve as a new headquarters.

In the meantime, on Thursday, Aug. 27, three examiners and supervisory examiner Jerry Bolduc cleaned up debris, mopped up the floors, and began working as tellers to get the credit union up and running again.

"The credit union plans to be open for members from nine to noon today, Friday, and Saturday," he reported to NCUA officials last week.

"With a 24-hour security guard and plenty of cash on hand, they are serving members right at the front door," he said.

Immediately after Andrew had passed in Louisiana, supervisor Dave Vickers and examiner Anthony Manuel loaded a pickup with shovels, water, gasoline, a generator, and chain saws and hit the road to inspect credit unions.

At two credit unions, they had to cut away trees to gain entrance to the facilities, according to a report filed with the Atlanta district.

They also put out the word that they would be liberal in reviewing loans made in the storm's aftermath.

By Friday, Aug. 28, all but four of the 270 credit unions in the storm zone had been contacted, according to the NCUA.

Other federal banking agencies also offered help to the disaster areas. The Resolution Trust Corp. leased an empty Miami warehouse to the state of Florida for a dollar, according to RTC press spokesman Stephen Katsanos.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.