Florida bankers exhale after Irma strikes

Register now

Florida banks emerged from Hurricane Irma in better-than-expected shape.

While experts warned about a potential catastrophe, the storm didn’t wreak as much havoc as many had feared. Irma, which made landfall on Sunday morning as a Category 4 hurricane, weakened significantly by the time it reached the Tampa Bay area.

Estimates for total damage have also been reduced significantly from $200 billion to $49 billion, according to Bloomberg.

Florida bankers focused much of their efforts Monday on restoring full service as soon as possible and taking care of employees.

“We’ve been dealing with hurricanes on a personal level,” said John Thompson, president and CEO of the $142 million-asset Central Bank in Tampa, who had been told that the bank’s only branch had survived the storm undamaged. “The bank comes after the employees and their families and their safety.”

A loss of power was the main factor affecting other institutions, including CenterState Banks in Winter Haven. Millions of residents in Florida and Georgia were without power on Monday.

More than half of the branches of the $6.8 billion-asset CenterState had no electricity. Backup generators kept a pair of operations centers functioning, said President and CEO John Corbett.

Corbett said his company, armed with 4,500 gallons of diesel fuel and other supplies, would be able to keep the centers operating “indefinitely.” CenterState’s preparedness plan was “excellent,” he said, adding that the company is now checking on employees and their families.

“The expectations were all over the place for the hurricane because they had it tracked up the east coast" of Florida, "then it was over the west coast,” Corbett said. “Then it went right up the middle. The effect of the storm was broader over the state than anticipated from the earlier forecasts.”

About two-thirds of the branches for Sunshine Bancorp in Plant City lack power, though customers can access accounts through online services, said President and CEO Andrew Samuel. Structurally, the branches fared well.

“A fair amount of our offices will be open shortly,” Samuel said.

After Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, industry experts had predicted that area banks could benefit from an influx of money from insurance claims and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The same could happen for affected areas of Florida.

"The economic boon that will come through Florida will be pretty interesting for all of us,” Johnny Allison, chairman of Home Bancshares in Conway, Ark., said during a conference in New York on Monday. “There will be an economic boon. There’s going to be lots of money pouring into that state."

Allison, who had yet to hear from his Florida Keys operations, said he would visit the area as soon as he could get a flight. The $11 billion-asset Home has bought more than a dozen banks in Florida since December 2008.

The $956 million-asset Sunshine wasn’t ready to assess the boost it could receive from recovery efforts, Samuel said. Rather, he was thankful Irma wasn’t as severe as predicted.

“We’ve been more concerned about the safety of our employees,” Samuel said.

Banks tend to withstand storms better than many other businesses, Gerald Lipkin, chairman and CEO of the $23.4 billion-asset Valley National Bancorp in Wayne, N.J., said during Monday’s investor conference. Banks still earn interest even when branches are closed, unlike businesses such as restaurants that lose money when they can’t open. Still, one risk is a rise in delinquencies.

Valley National, which has bought two banks in Florida, agreed earlier this year to acquire USAmeriBancorp in Clearwater.

Improved construction likely helped reduce the overall damage, Lipkin said.

“There were very strict building code changes during the last 15 to 20 years,” Lipkin said. “Homes and commercial buildings are built to withstand a hurricane. In Florida, you can’t build a home unless it's going to have impact-resistant windows. The roofs all have to be strapped down. I would anticipate seeing much less damage today than if the same identical storm hit Florida 20 years ago.”

The Mortgage Bankers Association said it had received a lot of questions from homeowners who didn’t know how to start assessing damage from Harvey and Irma. The group encouraged customers to contact their loan servicers to find out about programs that could help them, along with their insurers and FEMA.

JPMorgan Chase said it would waive or refund late fees for mortgage, credit card, business banking and auto loans and leases in addition to overdraft, monthly service and ATMs on deposit accounts for those in Florida’s affected areas. The company also created a 90-day grace period to delay payment on mortgage and home equity loans.

“For our customers impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, we stand with you,” Gordon Smith, JPMorgan Chase’s CEO of consumer and community banking, said in a press release.

“These are unprecedented times for these states and we want to bring the resources of JPMorgan Chase to help,” Smith added. “And to our 15,000 employees in Florida, 25,000 in Texas and 900 in Georgia, the company and your colleagues will support you.”

Kristin Broughton and Andy Peters contributed to this story.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.