While banking and business activity ground to a halt during the East Coast Blizzard of '96, financial institutions did what they had to do to keep the wheels of commerce turning.

In New York and other cities where the mail did not go through, money, where necessary, did.

Thanks to their heavy reliance on automation, banks were able to satisfy a subdued level of consumer demand - Monday was effectively a holiday for a fourth of the country - through automated teller machines and telephone service centers.

And big national and international corporate transactions flowed without a hitch over electronic payment systems like Fed Wire and Chips. Such operations overcame the considerable obstacle of two to three feet of snow by bringing personnel in before the storm hit on Sunday.

The snow took its greatest toll on what bankers call "traditional delivery systems." Thousands of branches were closed on Monday, and many in the hardest-hit areas opened late Tuesday.

The storm wreaked unaccustomed havoc on the check collection system by delaying cash letter deliveries and clearing. Paul Connolly, first vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, reported that overnight, systemwide float on Friday and Monday totaled $3 billion a day - a far cry from the 1995 daily Fed float average of $100 million.

Mr. Connolly was one of those who spent the weekend trying to anticipate and overcome the elements that eventually got the better of the checking system.

"We spent all (Monday) morning scurrying around and trying to make alternate arrangements to somehow get checks over the road and presented to banks," Mr. Connolly said at the storm's height on Monday. "We will get most of them presented ... but we won't be able to get them all delivered."

Seventeen of the country's biggest banks, members of the National Clearinghouse Association, suspended check-clearing operations Monday, either because of transportation delays or lack of processing staff, said David James of Huntington Bancshares, who is managing director of the clearing organization.

Mr. Connolly in Boston noted that "not one nickel of float occurred on the automated clearing house," in a plug for the paperless alternative that the Fed has made a priority of promoting this year.

***

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, like commercial banks in the city, put a contingency plan into effect over the weekend that included putting up a dozen key people at nearby hotels.

The New York Clearing House Association met its Monday 8:30 a.m. check settlement deadline, but bottlenecks built up later.

Chips - the New York association's Clearing House Interbank Payments System for international funds transfers, tallying an average $1 trillion a day - had normal days and no problems.

"We opened on time," said a person close to the Chips operation on Monday. "We're not like those wimps at the (New York) stock exchange," which opened 90 minutes late for an abbreviated three-hour session.

The exchange resumed regular hours on Tuesday.

***

Washington was no capital Monday or Tuesday.

Federal government offices were officially closed, and banking and thrift regulators met the criteria of being "nonessential."

None of the major trade groups were open, including the American Bankers Association, Independent Bankers Association of America, America's Community Bankers, Bankers Roundtable, and Consumer Bankers Association.

A security guard answered the phone at the office of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Ricki Helfer.

A staffer did pick up the phone in the office of Richard Spillenkothen, the Federal Reserve's director of banking supervision and regulation. The aide said he lived in the neighborhood and had stopped by simply to "check on the building."

***

On the streets, the Washington region bore the brunt of the blizzard.

The entrances of the Riggs National Bank and Crestar Bank branches across from the Treasury Department were blocked by four-foot drifts that showed no signs of foot traffic.

Two shovelers were struggling to cut a path to Capital Bank, a Washington-based community bank. But with no personnel inside, "Your only hope is to use the ATMs," one said.

In Annapolis, Md., John B. Bowers Jr. made it into the office of the Maryland Bankers Association, where he is executive vice president.

"Some bankers have called in just to verify there is a state of emergency here," Mr. Bowers said. "And yes, there is."

***

To the south and west of the capital region, the blizzard meant more inconvenience than disaster. While bank branches in Maryland and Virginia had to shut down Monday, those in Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Georgia managed to get by with reduced hours.

"If you have to be closed, we were closed in a surprisingly smooth way," said Crestar Financial Corp. spokesman Tony Mattera in Richmond, Va. "People got the word and stayed home. Our customers were understanding and our electronics were up, although I'm not sure what the volume was."

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond also managed to avoid disruptions in its electronic payments operation. "We had a reduced staff in here Monday but our books were open and everything was functioning," said first vice president and chief operating officer Walter Varnel.

Louisville, Ky., got a foot of snow over the weekend, but banks opened normally on Monday. Mid-America Bancorp reported none of its 32 branches closed and president Orson Oliver said absenteeism was about normal for a Monday. He said state crews did a good job clearing roads, in dramatic contrast to well-publicized foul-ups during a similar storm two years earlier.

***

After its recent merger with First Fidelity Bancorp., First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., has 680 of its 2,000 branches in New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. All of those were closed Monday.

"From North Carolina south, it's been a minor inconvenience, but we ran into greater challenges as we headed north," said First Union spokesman Jeep Bryant.

He said the bank also had to close some of the "old First Union" branches in Washington and Virginia. A couple hundred branches in the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia operated with reduced hours on Monday.

First Union's telephone service center in Roanoke, Va., where the snow exceeded two feet, operated with about 20% of staff Monday and many calls were routed to Charlotte and Jacksonville, Fla., Mr. Bryant said.

***

Timing helped Citizens Banking Co. of Salineville, Ohio, which has 30 branches in eastern Ohio and West Virginia and had to cope with 14 to 18 inches of snow.

"I think we would have had a lot more problems if this had happened during a business week as opposed to a weekend," said Chris Morse, vice president and director of marketing at the $800 million-asset company.

Bill Gray, chief communications officer at $320 million-asset Ohio Valley Bank in Gallipolis, Ohio, said Monday, "I think we're the only bank open" in the town. "We're the biggest bank in town. We're the only community bank. We have more employees to draw from. We feel it's our obligation to get open to service our customers."

But the bank did close its seven locations two hours early.

***

As the storm was gathering strength Sunday, Edie Rosko, PNC Bank Corp.'s vice president for treasury management operations, organized a series of conference calls from her suburban Delaware home.

"We even had the bank travel agent on the line, booking key employees in hotels in the Philadelphia area so they could get to work on Monday," she said.

Webster Financial Corp. of Waterbury, Conn., brought 20 information technology employees in on Sunday and put them up at a Holiday Inn to avoid interrupting the conversion of accounts from 20 Shawmut National Corp. branches that Webster is acquiring.

Kenneth T. Neilson, president of Hubco Inc. in Mahwah, N.J., did heavy labor with several other senior executives.

"We've plowed our lot about four times, and we still have drifts that blow in," he said Monday. "We're trying to keep things open."

***

In New York City, Citibank decided to keep only its main office on Park Avenue open. "We didn't want to endanger the lives of employees when customers can be serviced" by phone and ATM, said a spokeswoman.

Chemical Bank reported that 61 of its 275 metropolitan area branches were open, but only until early afternoon.

Only a few of Chase Manhattan Bank's 300 locations were open, but they closed at noon. Telephone service calls to a Long Island center had to be steered to Rochester, N.Y., but "the customer wouldn't know," a spokeswoman said.

***

Robert Mahoney, president of Citizens Bank of Massachusetts, an affiliate of Citizens Financial in Providence, R.I., went down fighting.

"I hate to close branches," he said. "There are people who expect us to be there."

Of the 60 offices stretching from Boston to Cape Cod, Mr. Mahoney said he kept about 80% open until noon Monday, and six more in the Boston area until 2 p.m.

He sees a symbolic benefit in staying open longer than the competition. "I want noncustomers to walk by our doors and see the lights on," Mr. Mahoney said. "There are four banks across the street from where I'm sitting, and they're not open."

***

In past years, major storms have proved the mettle of ATMs. But the major shared networks - NYCE, MAC, and Most - were hardly tested. People just didn't go out.

"The system ran just fine, though volume was about half of what we would normally expect," said Richard P. Yanak, president of Infinet Payment Services in Hackensack, N.J., operator of NYCE.

This article was written by Jeffrey Kutler, with contributions from Barbara Bronstien, Kenneth Cline, Jonathan Epstein, John Kimelman, Terrence O'Hara, Steven Marjanovic, Beth Piskora, Barbara Rehm, Christopher Rhoads, and Brian Tracey.

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