Tracy Dixon, chief executive of Bainbridge National Bank, is bracing for the big flood to hit town.
Last week, workers smeared Vaseline on the vault in the bank's west side branch and caulked its seams. Georgia's Flint River, which caused major flooding in towns upriver, is expected to crest in the town of Bainbridge sometime today.
Branches Shut Down
"It seems like an eternity to wait," said Mr. Dixon, who has cleaned out his house. "It's hard to believe that the river I see could end up being 27 feet higher than I've ever seen it before." The floods have spread destruction from Macon in central Georgia to the southwest corner of the state, with the worst-hit areas along the usually placid Flint River.
Community banks in the flood zones were hit with branch shutdowns lasting as long as two days because of power and water failures.
While these institutions have so far been spared from serious damage, bankers say the repercussions of the flooding could be felt for years to come.
"I'm afraid the economic impact to this small town is going to be tremendous," said Mr. Dixon.
Macon, the biggest city affected by the flood, is expected to be without water until August. Early estimates of damage to peanut crops, the region's agricultural staple, have reached $100 million. And news reports have placed the costs of infrastructure damage, concentrated in and around Macon so far, at $110 million.
At least Mr. Dixon has had the benefits of warnings, giving him time to prepare. Albany, Macon, and Americus were inundated a week ago by the tropical-storm-induced flood, which had claimed 28 lives in southwest Georgia as of Wednesday.
Some bankers have already experienced the devastation of the Flint.
In Albany, the water has risen 44 feet above normal, said Luke Flatt, senior lending executive with First State Bank and Trust Co., the largest community bank in the town of 80,000.
He said the bank, with $300 million in assets, had to close two of seven branches. One branch, in a Piggly Wiggly food store, is six to eight feet under water.
Mr. Flatt said 30,000 people in Albany have been displaced by the flooding.
Last Friday and Saturday, the bank was deluged with customers who couldn't collect their paychecks. The bank was authorized to pay cash on demand to workers from several companies, and Mr. Hart said branches were kept open until the workers stopped coming.
Crop insurance will cover much of the damage to the 400,000 acres of local farmland have been flooded so far, but homeowners may have problems, Mr. Flatt said.
As banks officials comb through the mortgage portfolio to identify potential problems, they are not optimistic.
"We suspect there are substantial number of customers who have no flood insurance," Mr. Flatt said. "It's a very sobering situation."
To be sure, small banks aren't the only ones to feel the impact of the flood.
Larger institutions with a big presence in Georgia, including North Carolina-based NationsBank Corp. and Synovus Financial Corp., Columbus, are also coping with problems.
But because a community bank's fortunes often rise and fall with circumstances of just one city, their burden is especially heavy.
Agricultural lenders, the overwhelming majority of which are community banks, will be especially hard hit, because the peanut crop is considered extremely vulnerable.
H. Phil Jones, chief executive of Citizens Bank of Americus, a community that suffered more from the speed of the flood than its breadth, said his bank was lucky.
"We closed last Wednesday because we had no electricity and water," he said. "But we've been open regular hours otherwise. The downtown area here wasn't hit."
Of the 28 people that have died from the flooding in Georgia, he said about half came from the Americus area.
"We just didn't have time to prepare," he said. "I went to bed Tuesday night with a nice shower coming down. When I woke up, there was water coming up my doorstep."
He said his bank has started a disaster relief fund and made a sizable contribution.
Trade groups are doing their part, too.
The Independent Bankers Association of America is activating a program first used last year that mobilizes bankers to help victims apply for federal disaster relief loans.
And the Community Bankers Association of Georgia is linking affected banks up with companies that provide mobile ATMs and modular branches. The state group is also conducting a survey of its 350 members to ascertain the damage to bank facilities.
Other bankers along the Hint River system were taking care of more immediate concerns.
Lending a Hand
The branch manager at the Montezuma branch of Columbus Bank and Trust couldn't be reached for comment.
"He's downtown helping clean things up," an employee said. The town was one of the worst-hit areas early on in the flood.
"There's not many people doing banking today," the bank employee said.
Meanwhile, the flood rolls southward toward the Florida panhandle.
"We are just sitting around waiting now," said John H. Monk, president and chief executive of Bainbridge-based First Port City Bank. "It's kind of sick: we know it's coming."