Gulf Coast Bankers Eager to Share Hurricane Advice

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Bankers in the Northeast must remain flexible and ready to roll up their sleeves in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

That was the sweeping message from bankers from areas along the Gulf Coast and Florida who have been through a fair share of catastrophic storms. As the Northeast begins to crawl out from Sandy's damage, hurricane veterans offered a few lessons and tips from their experiences on how to get back to business.

"Titles largely go away," says John Hairston, a co-chief executive at Hancock Holding (HBHC) in Gulfport, Miss. "You should be out in the field understanding the hardships your people are dealing with and getting those addressed."

Hancock lost 42 buildings during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Hairston recalls being so busy in the weeks after the storm, that he and Carl Chaney, Hancock's co-CEO and president, didn't have time to shave. "If your job description starts with 'chief' before the storm, it becomes 'whatever it takes' after the storm," Hairston says.

Get the banks reopened as soon as possible, advises Rusty Cloutier, the chief executive of MidSouth Bancorp (MSL) in Lafayette, La. That effort starts with determining if a building is safe. He says challenges could include total destruction, limited access to buildings and a lack of electricity. To that end, bankers might have to put competition aside and make friends with their brethren.

"Look for a buddy bank if you can't reopen yours," Cloutier says. "At one point, we had four additional banks. We gave them teller windows so that they could re-establish their banks."

Bankers must understand that not all of their staff will be able to make it to the branches.

"One of the biggest challenges after the storm involved locating your employees," says Dennis Hudson, the chief executive of Seacoast Banking Corp. of Florida (SBCF) in Stuart. The company found itself in a double-whammy in 2004, after hurricanes Frances and Jeanne ravaged the region within a three-week span.

"We opened back up with probably 80% of our staff," Hudson says. Seacoast used a phone tree system to identify associates who had severe problems. "We had a number who lost their roofs or literally had no place to live."

With a limited staff, employees must be empowered to look to their company's culture to make decisions, Hairston says.

"In a disaster, you can't call a meeting and get in a conference room and decide what to do. Your core values have to be the guiding light for making decisions in the field," Hairston says. "Make sure you tell your people, 'if you're cut off from your chain of command, look to our values in dealing with our clients, other team members and vendors'."

Efforts to minimize water damage can also save branches. "I think that is something they are going to have a lot of problems with in the Northeast," Hudson says. "My number one tip ... is to get people in those facilities quickly to start removing the water, [and get] dehumidifiers and fans going to prevent further damage."

Several bankers says that the community becomes a cash society very quickly because of power outages and fear. Hudson says that, despite stocking up on cash, Seacoast faced a crunch because demand was high and its armored courier's operations were hampered.

"Even with our preparation where we increased cash throughout the system, it wasn't enough," Hudson says. Seacoast turned to its large retail customers to make their deposits. In some cases, the bank went to them to get cash. "We sent some of our associates along with the burliest guys we have to go pick up cash from gas stations," he says.

Cloutier shares a similar story about driving $500,000 in cash to Beaumont, Texas, to pay city employees after Hurricane Rita in 2005.

Those tales are a part of a "do what you got to do" attitude that bankers used to survive storms. Hancock washed, dried and ironed cash that was flooded in underground vaults in New Orleans after Katrina.

After Katrina, several banks opened remote centers in Texas and central Alabama to serve as command posts in case something happened to their headquarters.

Though Hurricane Sandy is a rarity for the Northeast, Cloutier says he expects the storm to trigger changes in how Northeast banks prepare for future storms. "I would bet a lot [of bankers] are going to see a need for a second universe," he says. "I know this stuff happens once every 15 years, but can you afford the risk?"

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