PENSACOLA, Fla. - Tropical Storm Arlene probably wasn't as much of a wakeup call to credit unions as it might have been in years past when the first system of the new hurricane season rolled over the Florida Panhandle recently. People were already awake and aware. In fact, the area is still recovering from Hurricane Ivan, one of four major hurricanes to shred the Sunshine State last year. Along with Charley, Frances and Jeanne, the series of storms caused billions of dollars in damage across Florida and took dozens of lives. "We knew to prepare, and you just do the best you can, because these things have a mind of their own," says Patty Veal, vice president of marketing at $741 million Pen Air Federal Credit Union in Pensacola. As Veal and her colleagues around the state quickly found out, hurricanes can strip an organization of its technology as fast as a palm tree of its leaves. And they're applying what they learned last year to their preparations for this year and the years ahead. "For example, you need a drive-by tree as well as a telephone tree," Veal observes. "That's one lesson we learned. You can't just have lists of telephone numbers. You need a list of where employees live, because the regular phone lines and cellphone systems can both be down or jammed. "After Ivan, we found ourselves driving around just to make sure our folks were still alive. They were. Our buildings and operating systems also survived very well. And about 95% of our 215 or so employees showed up at work the day after the storm." One of Pen Air's 13 branches is still in the process of being repaired, with re-opening expected by the end of July. "Our IT team really kept our business going," Veal adds. "We had two ATMs that never lost power because they were on generators and 23 of our 30 ATMs were back up by the end of the first week." "I guess the lesson here is to prepare the best you can. Anyone who wants to know how to write a disaster recovery plan can feel free to ask us. We've got it down to a science!" Indeed, plans and preparations are likely to be a major topic at Florida Credit Union League meeting, according to Mark Ivester, the league's vice president of communications and public relations. "One of our main points is going to be that from Pensacola to Miami, from Jacksonville to Fort Myers, there wasn't anywhere in the state that didn't feel some impact from these storms," Ivester says. "A lot of our credit unions had generators last year, but I think even more will this year. From what we hear, folks are getting more and more ready," Ivester says. "Every season is something to prepare for, but the unusualness of last year simply doubled our concerns as we prepare for this year's hurricane season." The point man for the league's preparations is Bill Berg, vice president of compliance. He's been attending the annual Governor's Hurricane Conference and networking with disaster recovery officials at all levels since not long after Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida in 1992. The information Berg gathers is used to form the league's disaster preparedness and he also traverses the state making presentations aimed at helping individual credit unions prepare for what may be just over the horizon this time of year. Preparations are key, agrees Traci Germain, senior vice president of marketing at Tampa-based GTE Federal Credit Union. The $2 billion CU has 33 branches in Florida and four in New Orleans, "so we can get it either way from the Gulf of Mexico," Germain observes, "and we talk about hurricane preparations a lot." Last year's storms closed several branches for several days because of power and access loss, Germain says, "but I think we handled it pretty well. We have a communication plan that seems to work pretty well and we also now have a new data center that is Category 4 hurricane proof." While not on the coast, central Florida also was hit hard by the hurricanes and at one point, as Hurricane Charley threatened the state, "we were within hours of dispatching our advance team to our recovery site in Atlanta," says Tim Simpson, vice president of IT at $870 million Community First Credit Union of Florida in Jacksonville. "But as it turns out we were fortunate," Simpson says. While some around the state suffered through weeks of no electricity, "we had one or two branches without power for a couple days and that's it, and our headquarters was on a generator," Simpson says. "We also have a good disaster recovery plan and a very engaged executive team, and that really makes a difference," he adds. People are at the crux of the planning and the recovery, others agree. "I know for us everybody pulled together, and it all worked out," says Veal at Pen Air. "I can't imagine working anywhere else." Meanwhile, getting ready and then waiting is all that's left now that summer is kicking in and tropic waters keep warming, fueling the fierce storms. "We're watching and anticipating, and we're prepared," says Simpson at Community First. "It's part of doing business in a coastal state. The reality is you have to prepare for hurricanes. "Fortunately, you do get a fair amount of notice that they're coming." -firstname.lastname@example.org
Lessons Learned: Sunshine State CUs Brace for Another Stormy Tropical Season
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