Natural disasters create confusion and chaos, a time when exchanging information becomes more crucial but more difficult.
Credit unions that have successfully pulled out of Katrina say having a clear plan for hedging off communication problems is invaluable in times of turmoil. Communication challenges can include cell phone towers going down, cell service failing, and power grid destruction. Members, managers, and employees may find they have no access to email or telephones. A successful game plan should address three key communication channels: how managers will find and connect with one another, how employees will learn where to go and what to do, and how members will know how they can get financial help.
“Sit down and think about it,” says Eddie Vollenweider, then-vice president of operations for GNO Federal Credit Union ($108.8M, Metairie, LA), now vice president of business operations for Neighbors Federal Credit Union ($504.8M, Baton Rouge, LA). “Look at your situation. Your disaster may not be a hurricane. It may be an earthquake. It may be a tsunami. You understand your area and what the threats are for the most part — look at those challenges.”
At the time of Hurricane Katrina, GNO FCU had approximately $84 million in assets, 14,000 members, and 36 employees in four locations, including a main office in Metairie, LA. The storm wiped out three offices with 18 inches of flooding and knocked out power and utilities in the main office for two weeks. Vollenweider evacuated to Baton Rouge, away from the danger in New Orleans but close enough so he could investigate the damage after it passed, he said. The credit union had planned a hot site, or backup location, in Jacksonville, FL, but employees needed to be close to their damaged homes and couldn't travel to Florida.
“Because of the devastation, personal devastation, in New Orleans, I couldn’t get employees to leave this area to go to Florida to set up an office,” Vollenweider says. “Having people leave and try to operate our command center and call center in Jacksonville turned out not to be feasible.”
From Baton Rouge, Vollenweider connected with Neighbors Federal Credit Union, which had shared the same operating systems, to provide a temporary backup location, but he was challenged with communicating the plan to other executives, such as Darlene Lockhart, then-vice president of accounting.
“We wound up in Homa, LA,” Lockhart says. “You didn’t have a lot of media. You didn’t have any communication. Cell phones didn’t work. People didn’t text as much then. So we actually stayed there in a hotel with no power, but it was a place to sleep. I had to go to the local library to try to contact Eddie — we needed to get somewhere where we could make sure our members were getting money.”
Lockhart’s cell phone didn’t work and she spent a day trying to hunt down other executives’ phone numbers, eventually using a pay phone at a convenience store to connect with Vollenweider, who told her the Greater New Orleans FCU would set up with Neighbors FCU in Baton Rouge. Gulf Coast Community Federal Credit Union ($64.4M, Gulfport, MS), which had three locations severely damaged by Katrina, was grappling with similar communication problems between managers there, says Debbie Pidek, executive vice president of communications for Gulf Coast Community FCU. Now, the credit union is prepared with satellite phones for executives if cell towers and landlines fail again.
“So unless those satellites come down — and I don’t think that’s going to happen — we’re in pretty good shape,” Pidek says of Gulf Coast Community FCU’s revamped communication plan. “All of our managers now have satellite phones, and, of course, these are stored. We don’t use these on a regular basis, but they’re there for the emergencies.”
Although credit unions might regularly update phone lists and store them in both electronical and hard-copy form, they also need more ways to communicate with employees following a natural disaster, says Pidek. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, the entire 504 area code was out of service, leaving anyone with that number unreachable and the emergency phone tree unusable.
“One thing we learned during Katrina was it’s not enough just to have your employees' cell phone number and home phone number or an address,” Pidek says. “You need their husband’s cell phone, their sister’s cell phone, their daughter’s cell phone, because, depending on which cellular contract you had, some of the towers may be down."
As Gulf Coast Community learned, it helps to have more than one contact point for each employee. It might seem extreme, but credit unions that have been through disasters realize it’s a good safeguard. Gulf Coast now asks employees for as many contacts as possible while Greater New Orleans FCU and Neighbors FCU requires its employees to provide contact information for next-of-kin who are not in the area.
Credit Union-To-Member Communication
After a severe natural disaster, members are often desperate for their money but, with branches likely destroyed or damaged and call centers overwhelmed, they’re confused about how to get it. It’s a time when credit unions need to leverage all possible communication channels to let members know how they can get their cash.
Dow Louisiana Federal Credit Union ($250.1M, Plaquemine, LA) struggled to keep in touch with its members as it shared its call center with ASI Federal Credit Union ($291.3M, Harahan, LA), which at the time had approximately 80,000 members, says Dow Louisiana CEO Jeff Hendrickson.
“Our call center lines were overwhelmed with their members,” Hendrickson says. “But we worked through it. We got them cell phones so we could redirect calls very quickly onto their cell phones and move their members through so we could also help our members.”
Greater New Orleans FCU members, many of whom just wanted to make sure their payments were made on time, also struggled to get through the phone lines. The credit union’s circuits were so overloaded at its call center in Baton Rouge that it decided to extend its call center hours to 12 hours a day, seven days a week to field member concerns about their bills and questions about cash.
“It’s really a tough feeling when it comes down to, as I call it, the moment of truth,” Vollenweider says. “In sales, that’s when the needs of your customer are right in front of you, and you need to be able to do something. Our moment of truth with our 14,000 members came.”
Louisiana credit union members also turned to the Louisiana Credit Union League’s CUaid, an online disaster relief system activated by National Credit Union Foundation, for credit unions to enter their information about where they were and how to access them. If consumers’ phone lines were down, CUaid provided a way for them to find out how to get in touch with their financial institution.
“Our first step after Katrina was finding everybody,” says Connie Major, executive vice president of the Louisiana Credit Union League. “Now we know what their plans are. We know what their backup systems are and where they’re going to be for the most part.”