Bank branch closings were the order of the day from North Carolina to New York on Thursday as Hurricane Floyd roared up the East Coast.

With few customers braving the weather, most bankers were opting to get their workers home safely. Citigroup Inc., Chase Manhattan Corp., and First Union Corp. were among the banking companies that had closed most branches by 1 p.m. Thursday.

Such closings are rare, occurring at most once a year, said a spokesman for Chase, which had shuttered 431 branches in metropolitan New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut by noon. Small-business customers who make regular deposits at Chase branches were contacted by phone and urged to come in earlier.

Many banks in eastern North Carolina never opened at all on Thursday. In Wilmington, where 20 inches of rain fell overnight, Rick Willetts 3d, president and chief executive officer of Cooperative Bank for Savings there, said he closed his 17 branches.

"Our year-2000 testing proved we can operate without computers, but there are power lines down everywhere, and I didn't want to put anyone in danger," Mr. Willetts said Thursday from his home.

Up the coast in Virginia, things were not much better. Gov. Jim Gilmore on Thursday morning urged businesses in his state not to open. "Most of our banks in the path of the storm followed the governor's recommendation," said Patricia G. Satterfield, executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Banks in Richmond, Va.

In Maryland, the governor exempted banks from a state of emergency, and as of early afternoon none had called the state banking department to report a closing. But farther north, it was a different story as the approaching storm dumped heavy rain.

Chase started sending "non-essential" employees home in staggered groups at noon, 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. from offices around New York City and its credit card facility in Wilmington, Del.

Summit Bancorp in Princeton, N.J., left it up to regional presidents to decide whether to close, and some branches in coastal areas had shut by noon. Weather last closed its branches early during the blizzard of 1996.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York stayed open. Douglas Tillett, a spokesman, said inclement weather is not a major concern and would not disrupt check clearance and settlement. "People are dealing with it," he said. "There is always some weather somewhere that slows an airplane somewhere, or a bag of checks that does not get delivered."

The Richmond Fed closed all but essential operations Thursday, but was monitoring Fed operations in North Carolina. "I don't know of any problems in terms of our own operations here," said J. Alfred Broaddus Jr., president of the Richmond Fed. "I think we are in pretty good shape."

Henry C. Farrar, senior vice president at the New York Clearing House, said he was still assessing the storm's impact. "This is a situation where ECP (electronic check presentment) is great," he said, referring to a rapidly emerging service where check data is electronically presented to paying banks. Using ECP, "We don't care if checks are moving or not."

Meanwhile, regulators were taking steps to ease the impact on borrowers. The Office of Comptroller of the Currency urged national banks in a press release Thursday to be patient and to ease credit terms for certain new loans, where appropriate.

This article was reported by Steven Marjanovic, Liz Moyer, and Louis Whiteman.

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