Of the 2,000 credit unions located in the path of Hurricane Sandy, 838 were unable to operate, in varying degrees, during the difficult days following the super storm, according to the NCUA. And it took nearly a full week before most of those credit unions were be back in business to serve their members.
“The impact on credit unions is widespread, but [it was] not as dramatic as it could have been,” said Mike Retelle, claims manager at CUNA Mutual Group.
The biggest problem most credit unions faced was simple. No power.
On a chilly Oct. 30 morning, the day after the center of Hurricane Sandy’s fury blasted through southern New Jersey, leaving behind its widespread destruction, thousands of credit union executives, managers, employees and members scrambled to find out how the storm affected their branches and offices.
Widespread power outages across New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and parts of eastern Pennsylvania, however, made damage assessment efforts nearly impossible for many credit unions. In addition, mobile phone service was spotty and many roads were blocked because of massive flooding, fires, downed trees and power lines. For safety reasons, authorities closed access to some areas where the destruction was widespread. Up to 8.5 million homes and business across New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island and West Virginia lost power.
Undoubtedly, credit union leaders were anxious to get information–any information–about their branches and offices, and how they were going to serve their members, who also had been hit by the storm and would soon need cash.
“We have been unable to access our branch in Northfield but have been told there is no apparent damage on the outside,” said Virginia Williams, CEO/president of the $117 million Jersey Shore Federal Credit Union in Northfield on the morning of Oct. 30. “We also have a branch in Rio Grande in a strip mall. This is just four miles outside Cape May, [but] no word on the status of that branch yet.”
Cape May is a small seaside city that sits on the southeastern tip of New Jersey and was battered by the storm like most cities along the Jersey coastline. There was no question that the Garden State bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.
Credit union league offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania remained closed on Tuesday, but employees were working from their homes trying to call credit unions and monitoring social media and television newscasts to see how the storm was affecting credit unions.
Bonnie Sklar of the Credit Union Association of New York said there were no impact reports coming in from credit unions, but she was already receiving calls from credit unions not affected by the storm that wanted to know how they could help. Credit unions emailed notices to their members stating that all fees would be waived for members through Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Oct. 31, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania leagues were still unsure about how things were, but some reports were finally trickling in.
“Our CUs are starting to make contact and we will be providing a status update soon,” said Paul Gentile, president/CEO of the New Jersey Credit Union League on Wednesday. “Many CUs are posting ACH and share drafts remotely. No power, lack of gas and blocked roads are the main obstacles to doing business.”
Credit unions across the greater New York City area suffered a wide variety of different damage from the storm and with different levels of response.
The 5,000-member, $30 million Bethex Federal Credit Union, a community development credit union headquartered in the Bronx, N.Y., reported its one branch and online services were available for all transactions.
“Yes, we are open and all systems are go,” reported Bethex founder and CEO Joy Cousminer, a 42-year veteran of the institution. Cousminer reported that the credit union opened despite her not having power or hot water at her home in Manhattan and despite the credit union’s 23 staff members not having access to public transportation. Bethex had arranged ride pools and offered to pay the cab fares of staff who needed to take a cab to make it to work during the emergency.
One of the credit unions struggling with the storm’s effects was the 340,000-member, $1.8 billion Municipal Credit Union. Its website and phone lines were down. A number of members publicly worried about not having access to their funds. But later in the day, MCU managed to open 10 of its 18 branches. Two damaged branches on Coney Island and Oceanside were closed.
Of course, MCU was not the only credit union that faced difficult challenges. The 5,800-member, $33 million Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union opened its branch in Harlem on Wednesday, but its main branch on the Lower East Side remained closed due to power outages. The 22,000-member, $165 million Actor’s Federal Credit Union, headquartered in mid-town Manhattan, had its website up but had to post alternate phone numbers after the credit union’s main numbers went down.
“We are operating with limited staff, so there may be delays in processing your requests,” read a notification to members the credit union posted on its website.
In New Jersey, the $293 million McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union opened its headquarters in East Windsor, N.J. on auxiliary power and reopened its two branches in New York City. But its 55 Water Street branch in New York City, however, was forced to closed in the aftermath of the storm.
Struggling to Recover
By Wednesday afternoon–just 30 hours after Hurricane Sandy–credit unions were starting to restore some services.
“New Jersey credit unions are slowly recovering from power outages and damages, some even now open and operational,” said Gentile. “Many are still conducting ACH and online transactions even if their offices and branches are closed and are encouraging their members to use online and mobile banking in the meantime.”
But many credit unions in the Garden State were still struggling to re-establish services. Affinity Federal Credit Union, New Jersey’s largest credit union, remained closed on Wednesday, and its online banking services also were not available. Based in Basking Ridge, N.J., the $2.2 billion, 135,000-member credit union also said its regular 800 phone number was not operational.
The Pennsylvania Credit Union League in Harrisburg and the Credit Union League of Connecticut in Meriden said some areas of their states still had widespread power outages, but many credit unions managed to reopen Wednesday.
Although credit unions were open in the central part of Connecticut, credit unions in the east and south were still experiencing power outages, said Tony Emerson, president/CEO of CULC. In Pennsylvania, there were widespread power outages in the Allentown, Reading and Bethlehem areas, said Diane Powell, PCUL’s director of communications. There were also some power outages in southeastern Pennsylvania. The majority of credit unions in the state, however, seemed to be operating with only a few reporting branch closings because of no power.
In other states, credit unions dodged the bullet.
The Delaware Credit Union League reported that its 27 credit unions did not have any damage despite the state being as little as 20 miles from southern New Jersey, where Hurricane Sandy landed on Monday night, Oct. 29, and caused so much destruction.
“The league contacted many of our credit unions on Tuesday and found that about one-third had reopened for business either in the morning or early afternoon,” said Jane Bailey, executive vice president of DCUL in New Castle. “All credit unions were back to the business of serving their members on Wednesday.”
Also on Wednesday, industry organizations began to raise funds to aid affected credit unions.
The National Credit Union Foundation activated CUAID.coop, its online, credit union-specific disaster relief system to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
CUAid is the only program of its kind that enables credit union employees, volunteers, and members, as well as credit unions and credit union organizations across the U.S., to contribute directly to support other credit union people, the NCUF said.
By Thursday, CUAid said it received more than $24,000 in less than 24 hours since it began its campaign to help credit union staff and family.
“The response to our call for donations Wednesday has been truly inspiring with donations from $25 to $10,000,” said Christopher Morris of the National Credit Union Foundation.
By Thursday, there were more positive signs that credit unions were getting back to business as usual.
With the exception of two branches in New Jersey and New York that were closed due to power outages, Navy Federal Credit Union said all of its branches were open Thursday.
As a result of Hurricane Sandy, the $51 billion credit union in Vienna, Va., had to close or alter operation hours at nearly 40 of its branches in several states including in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia and in Washington, D.C. Though several of its 225 branches had closed, the nation’s largest credit union said its Virginia headquarters, call centers and online and mobile banking services remained working.
Long Island Woes
On New York’s Long Island, about 90% of utility customers, homeowners and businesses, lost power after the storm. The state’s largest credit union, the $4.8 billion Bethpage Federal Credit Union on Long Island, said 21 of its 25 branches throughout Long Island re-opened on Nov. 1 after power was restored. New Jersey’s largest credit union, Affinity FCU, also opened six of its 15 branches. Still, problems persisted.
“Our main headquarters is connected to our generator and is fully operational,” said Affinity president/CEO John Fenton. “The other branches are in areas with power and we will use the Internet and cellular to make sure our members are served especially with cash needs. Most of the ATMs in the state are out because of the phone line and power issues. I am proud of the Affinity team, who, despite their own personal issues at home, have been working tirelessly, creatively and successfully to take care of our members.”
On Thursday, CUNA Mutual received damage reports from about 25 credit unions in seven states but expected that number to rise as power was being restored in affected areas. CUNA Mutual spokesperson Phil Tschudy said most of the claim reports are for minor building damage in the New York City, Long Island and Jersey Shore areas and that they do not include damage from flooding or storm surge, which is insured through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.
“Power is, and will continue to be a major problem for many days. However, per our findings and discussion with the NCUA, all credit unions are operational. Some branches are closed, but members can transact business via the Web or at other branch locations of their credit union,” Tschudy said.
Those power outages that lingered on through the week, nonetheless, were testing the patience of members of Municipal Credit Union.
By Friday, Nov. 2, the New York-based credit union came under fire from dozens of MCU members for failing to credit direct deposit checks to members’ accounts, no phone customer services, inoperable ATMs and problems with online banking.
The direct deposit issue that lasted for nearly a week affected more than 14,000 members, including many who complained that they had no access to cash to get through the storm’s aftermath or enough money in their accounts to pay bills. Members reading stories about MCU’s troubles on the Credit Union Times website posted more than 60 complaints and comments.
By Tuesday, Nov. 6, after MCU’s main office in lower Manhattan had its power restored over the weekend, the beleaguered credit union said it completed postings of all direct deposits and ACH payments scheduled for last week, which were delayed because of Hurricane Sandy. MCU said it also had resolved its ATM, online and call center issues.
Small Credit Unions
While some big credit unions like MCU, Affinity and Bethpage struggled to restore services to members, small credit unions seemed to be in a better position to keep serving their members.
The $17 million MidState Federal Credit Union in Carteret, N.J., is located next to a bay where floodwaters rose three feet into the streets during high tide. By Friday, Nov. 2, Tracey Sussmann, president/CEO, and a small team of employees carried lanterns, blankets, extra coats and gloves and unlocked the doors to Midstate’s branch and opened for business.
In light of payroll for the community’s largest employer, Social Security and pension checks, and the fact that no ATMs were available due to the power outage, Sussmann and her staff deemed it necessary to provide cash to members. They worked offline to cash checks and allow members to make cash withdrawals with an off-duty police officer standing guard. Cash was king during the crisis with stores and gas stations unable to accept debit or credit cards. MidState FCU was the only financial institution open in Carteret before the weekend, Sussmann said.
“This is why I’m in this industry,” reflected Sussmann. “If I can help one person a day I know I’m in the right business.”
Also by Friday, it seemed that more and more credit unions were re-opening branches and offices in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.
During the first weekend after the storm, utility companies were reporting more power restorations throughout the storm stricken states, and daily life, at least to some extent, was returning to normal with the realization that the work of rebuilding was just beginning.
By Monday afternoon on Nov. 5, of the 838 credit unions initially affected by the storm, 729 were fully operational, according to the NCUA.
By Tuesday, three credit unions in New York remain closed or not operational. In New Jersey, the hardest hit state, 31 credit unions remain closed, 24 are not operational and 11 have yet to verify their status with the NCUA. Areas in New Jersey still struggling to recover from the storm included parts of Monmouth, Union, Hunterdon and Middlesex counties, as well as areas of Newark., the state’s largest city. Public transportation was down or offered limited services in some areas, which has affected credit union staffing and accessibility, the NCUA reported. In addition, in some areas, phone and Internet access was still down, roadways remain blocked and fuel in short supply.
A handful of credit unions remain closed or nonoperational in Pennsylvania, but there were no reported credit unions closings in Virginia or West Virginia.
Catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide said Sandy will cause between $7 billion and $15 billion in insured losses–possibly making the storm the third costliest in U.S. history. Eqecat, another catastrophe modeler, earlier released an insured-loss estimate from Sandy between $5 billion and $10 billion, with total economic losses of $10 billion and $20 billion.
To support the rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Sandy, credit unions, state leagues and associations and the National Credit Union Foundation have raised, as of last Thursday, more than $130,000 since the disaster relief system, CUAID.coop, was activated last week.
Credit union supporters in every state can make donations at www.cuaid.coop. CUAid is the only program of its kind that enables credit union employees, volunteers, and members, as well as credit unions and credit union organizations across the U.S., to contribute directly to support other credit union people.
As donations are posted through CUAid.coop, NCUF is coordinating with the New Jersey Credit Union League and the Credit Union Association of New York to distribute money efficiently to affected credit union employees and members.
“The devastation in New Jersey has impacted millions of people’s lives. We continue to deal with a gasoline shortage, lack of basic necessities for those who have lost their homes and many are still without power. With the temperature dropping and a Nor’easter approaching, we need resources to ensure basic needs are met for those most impacted,” Paul Gentile, president/CEO of the New Jersey league, told the NCUF.
“I have been touched by the outreach we have received from credit unions and credit union system organizations throughout the country. It is so valuable to have a fund like CU Aid available to concentrate fundraising efforts.”
“The damage from Hurricane Sandy continues to impact many New York credit unions, their employees and members. Countless remain without power, heat and other basic necessities, while some have completely lost their homes,” William J. Mellin, President/CEO of the Credit Union Association of New York, told NCUF. “The need for financial assistance is great, which is why I am asking everyone to open your hearts and give whatever you can. To those that have already donated to help our credit union family, thank you!”