When customers rent safe deposit boxes, they typically sign agreements stating that the bank is not responsible for an act of God.
But that disclaimer does not mean that — in the unlikely event of a flood, fire or other calamity — banks are necessarily in the clear. After natural disasters strike, branch workers follow a well-choreographed script that aims to recover customers’ items, ensure employee safety and minimize the banks’ own legal exposure.
“Banks are in a very difficult position here,” said Scott Sargent, a lawyer at Baker Donelson who specializes in risk management and regulatory compliance. “The best they can do to protect themselves is document everything.”
The industry’s disaster-response playbook is now being dusted off in both Texas and Florida, where recent hurricanes have resulted in dozens of deaths and untold billions of dollars of property damage.
During Hurricane Harvey, a ValueBank Texas branch in the small city of Port Aransas was flooded with salt water, and roughly 100 safe deposit boxes were damaged. “Four feet of water in a vault,” said CEO Scott Heitkamp.
Once the storm passed, the bank began contacting customers and asking them to retrieve their items. Fortunately, many of them averted damage by storing their valuables in plastic bags.
“I was concerned about customers’ reactions,” Heitkamp said. “And so far, customers have been mostly pleased.”
Safe deposit boxes can be a knotty business for banks. They promise security — in flood-prone regions, some residents may rent the boxes out of fear that their homes will end up under water — but that guarantee only goes so far.
Typically, none of the relevant physical infrastructure — the bank vault, the box or the metal storage container, known as a bond tin, which customers use to stash and retrieve their items — is waterproof.
Customers can buy private insurance for the items they store. But unlike bank deposits, safe deposit boxes do not benefit from a federal safety net.
A bank’s response to flooding usually starts with an assessment of the physical damage. If the water has receded, it may be safe enough to invite customers into the branch to retrieve their items. If not, the bank may need to drill into the boxes in order to retrieve the damaged contents.
This work can be hazardous. In the wake of Harvey, the city of Houston continues to contend with the effects of contaminated flood waters and mold.
“It’ll literally make you sick,” said David McGuinn, president of the consulting firm Safe Deposit Specialists.
The items stored inside the boxes may pose additional risks. “I’ve always been surprised by the number of people that put guns in their safe deposit boxes,” Sargent commented.
Some bank customers use the boxes to store cash. If U.S. currency gets contaminated, it can be returned to the Federal Reserve, but only if banks follow a detailed set of procedures. The tainted bills must be specially labeled, double-bagged and sealed in a way that prevents tampering.
Other customers place stock certificates and property deeds under lock and key. It may later fall to branch employees to take a photo or video of the disintegrating paper. “Sometimes you get one shot at getting a picture,” Sargent said.
This dirty, painstaking work unfolds against the threat of potential litigation. Even though banks are not responsible for damage from natural disasters, they can be sued for negligence.
In order to protect against allegations of theft, industry lawyers advise banks to have at least two employees present during the recovery work. “You would never have only one person opening a box,” said Karen Neeley, general counsel for the Independent Bankers Association of Texas.
Hiring a security guard to be on the premises around the clock can offer additional protection.
And ensuring that there is careful documentation of every item recovered is another key safeguard. If the customer can serve as a witness when this work occurs, that further protects the bank.
“We really recommend that they get ahold of the customers, and that the customers be there,” said Tina Moss, the CEO of American Deposit Services, which sells safe deposit boxes to banks.
Still, banks are sometimes held liable.
In the 1990s, Lemay Bank & Trust Co. in Missouri was sued by the owners of a rare 18th-century violin that was stored in a safe deposit box and destroyed in a flood.
Bank officials argued that they took proper precautions, such as erecting a sandbag wall and sealing the vault door. Still, a jury awarded $315,000 to the couple that owned the violin.
In other cases, the items lost are priceless.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hundreds of safe deposit boxes were destroyed inside a JPMorgan Chase branch at Ground Zero.
Among the items lost were an estimated 40,000 negatives of John F. Kennedy taken by the late photographer Jacques Lowe.
“A whole slice of history has been taken away, vanished, destroyed,” Thomasina Lowe, the photographer’s daughter, later told The New York Times.