Texas bankers recovering from Hurricane Harvey are starting to reflect on their experiences in a way that could benefit their Florida colleagues.

All banks have emergency preparedness plans, which were tested as Harvey dumped copious amounts of rain on Southeast Texas, causing extensive flooding.

Though Texas bankers were mostly satisfied with how they weathered the storm, some vowed to make adjustments by improving communication with customers and forming more concrete plans to help affected employees.

Hopefully some of those lessons will help Florida bankers who will spend much of this weekend preparing for Hurricane Irma.

Texas bankers are looking back at Hurricane Harvey to identify ways to better serve customers and employees. Unprecedented flooded submerged homes, cars and businesses, including this construction equipment in West Columbia, Texas. Bloomberg News

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to be focused on people,” said Tony Ross, chief credit officer at Woodforest National Bank in The Woodlands, who has been a banker through Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew. “Before the storm you’re focused on preparedness. After the storm, there’s recovery. But people need to be the focus.”

Many Texas bankers said they had no downtime with operations, even if branches were closed, as Harvey raged. Customers could access services through call centers and personal technology.

Many banks placed teams of critical staff in hotels next to operations centers. Green Bancorp even deployed a backup team of four employees to Dallas in case its Houston operations center lost power.

“We wanted to give customers virtual support,” said Geoffrey Greenwade, Green’s president. “If they needed to buy something, we wanted to make sure their debit card still worked. If a business needed to wire money, we were able to do that.”

Reopening every branch doesn’t have to be the first priority, bankers said. People in affected area are more likely concerned about going to the grocery store or gas station than stopping by a branch once conditions improve, Greenwade said.

In some instances, it makes sense to reopen a handful of branches, particularly when dealing with a skeleton crew. Some employees will likely have fled the area and may have trouble getting back.

“You don’t have to reopen everything at once,” said Bill Day, a spokesman for the $30.2 billion-asset Cullen/Frost Bankers in San Antonio. “Remember many day cares, senior day cares, schools, etc. might not be open.”

A small command team at the $5 billion-asset Woodforest met via phone to make decisions to help customers. They were able to quickly decide on issues like fee waivers and increased mobile deposit limits.

“We’re pretty happy with our emergency plans as they played out over the storm and now, during what will be a prolonged recovery,” said Cathy Nash, Woodforest’s president and CEO. “We do a number of desktop exercises throughout the year which help us prepare. This is when those exercises matter.”

Despite successes, Texas bankers were considering ways to be better prepared for future storms.

Prosperity Bancshares “learned a lot” from Harvey, said David Zalman, the Houston company’s chairman and CEO. Though Prosperity had been through other hurricanes, none of them matched Harvey’s destruction.

Zalman said he was already discussing how to improve customer communication. The $22.3 billion-asset company emailed updates to customers but they only went to certain clients.

“People like texting,” Zalman added. “That’s what I’m going to focus on.”

Internet and cellular coverage after Harvey was the biggest challenge for ValueBank Texas in Corpus Christi, said President and CEO Scott Heitkamp. Overall, the $221 million-asset company’s disaster planning “was really good,” Heitkamp said, though he said he would focus even more on post-disaster communications.

Banks would be well advised to brush up on the cellular and satellite communications options that are available, Heitkamp added.

Greenwade said he wants to find better ways to immediately help displaced employees. The $4.2 billion-asset Green had 25 employees displaced from their homes with 10 identified as having a catastrophic loss. Greenwade said he was thinking of forming a team of employees to help coworkers clean up their homes.

“It could almost be like we have a crew that’s waiting to go out and help them based on where they are in the city,” Greenwade added. “Once the water has passed, people are cleaning up their homes, getting carpet out, tearing out drywall. We could have a team of trained people to help with that.”

Having a plan in place beforehand that addresses credit decisions is something Woodforest is looking at, Ross said. Sometimes banks focus more on physical locations and other systems during a crisis, neglecting the credit side of banking.

A disaster credit policy that will be blasted out to employees before a storm would address that concern. It would empower employees to quickly answer questions about items such as loan deferments, without waiting for decisions from top executives who might be bogged down with other concerns.

“It needs to be a battle drill,” said Ross, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

“You don’t want to be dependent on executives making decisions,” Ross added. “You need executives thinking about long-term decisions or unique situations. You don’t want to have to tell your employees how to tie their shoes. Instead, you just want to tell them at what time to tie their shoes.”

John Reosti contributed to this story.

Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart covers community banks and mergers and acquisitions for American Banker.