As towns in eastern North Carolina struggle to recover from some of the worst flooding in state history, banks in the region are looking for ways to help.

Institutions of all sizes have promised to relax loan terms and offer low-rate financing to help people and businesses get back on their feet. But bankers report that the devastation is so bad, it is hard even to determine what needs doing.

"There is flooding in places where no one ever considered it could flood," said Rick Willetts 3d, president and chief executive officer of $390 million-asset Cooperative Bank in Wilmington. "There is no way of even guessing how much this is going to cost to clean up. Right now, all we can do is wait for the tides to go down."

Hurricane Floyd, which ripped across the Middle Atlantic states last week, dropped 20 inches of rain in some areas during 12 hours. Flooding has damaged an estimated 30,000 homes and caused $6 billion of damage in North Carolina.

Thomas A. Vann, president and CEO of $300 million-asset New South Bank in Washington, watched from his office window on Friday and Monday as helicopters airlifted flood victims to safety.

"The flooded area is shifting around like an amoeba," he said. "People can look out their window and see grass and then look again moments later and see water rushing towards them. It's frightening."

Luckily for New South, its two Washington branches were built on hills and escaped most of the flooding. As the first bank open in the area on Friday, Mr. Vann said, New South spent most of the day cashing checks for residents in need of emergency cash.

Not every institution has been so fortunate. In Tarboro, just down the street from where President Clinton announced a relief package for hurricane victims on Monday, tiny Tarboro Savings Bank remained without working phones on Tuesday evening.

Staffing has also been a problem for some banks. Southern Bank and Trust Co. in Mount Olive closed four of its 45 branches Tuesday because employees could not get to work.

"This is something that this region has never seen before," said John C. Pegram Jr., Southern's president. "Everyone is trying to do what they can to get back to their lives, but I think most of us are still just stunned."

The $625 million-asset bank has also been unable to open a couple of branches due to flood damage. In Windsor, where the waters have receded, ruined carpets and furniture have been removed and new computers ordered in an attempt to reopen by the end of the week. But in Pollocksville, Southern Bank had to apply to the state to open a temporary site because the damage to its branch there is so bad.

Meanwhile, some are finding ways around the storm. Butch Congleton, a Greenville resident who is organizing Millennia Community Bank, spent Monday and Tuesday contacting pilots and scouting roads in search of a way to get to Raleigh. He had a meeting there Wednesday to apply for a preliminary charter.

More than half of Millennia's organizers were evacuated to shelters, and Mr. Congleton himself was unable to stay at home because of a fear of flooding and a lack of power and fresh water. Still, the bank's organizers made arrangements with a helicopter pilot on Tuesday afternoon to take them over the flood waters and to the state capital.

Millennia dodged a bullet because the trailer that was to be its temporary headquarters never arrived as planned in Greenville last week. If it had arrived, it would probably have been swept away by the water.

Mr. Congleton said he believes the flood waters will only increase the need for Millennia, which is being organized as a community development bank.

"Things are really bad here, and it's a little bit scary," he said. "After this, the area is going to need a community development vehicle more than ever."

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