Money, Time & Goods: Credit Unions Respond to Disasters
In a year when hurricanes and fires devastated pockets of the country, credit unions and their CUSOs reached out to help their neighbors – from running call centers to sending extra money.
Harvey triggered a state of emergency in Texas Aug. 23, and from the time it struck Houston Aug. 25 through hurricanes Irma and Maria, and until the last fires were under control in northern California by the end of October, at least 400 Americans had been killed. In their wake was billions of dollars of damage and thousands were left homeless, and in Puerto Rico half of its 3.4 million U.S. citizens were still without power in late November.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated 25% of the island's residents will still be without power at the end of January.
The enormity of the year's disasters spurred credit unions and CUSOs to pitch in.
As the hurricanes struck, CUSO competitors PSCU and CO-OP Financial Services worked together with CUNA to funnel calls from members in affected areas to their call centers, where they could be directed to help or receive financial services.
PSCU boosted its capacity to handle the calls at its centers in Phoenix, Ariz., Detroit and St. Petersburg, Fla.
PSCU donated $50,000 to the National Credit Union Foundation for storm relief. Its employees also collected about 600 pounds of diapers, flashlights, canned goods, paper towels, toilet paper and other supplies. The first shipment went out Aug. 24 to Houston, and the fifth and last load was shipped to Puerto Rico in early November.
“There were members of credit unions and employees of credit unions who lost their homes,” Erika Hill, PSCU's vice president of experiential marketing and events said.
CO-OP's main avenue for charity is its Miracle Match, in which CO-OP donates up to $1 million a year as matches to credit union donations to the Children's Miracle Network of 170 children's hospitals across North America. Together they have raised $20 million since the program began in 2008.
CO-OP tries to maintain flexibility so that it can boost its giving when disasters occur, and was able to donate an extra $10,000 to the Foundation for hurricane relief, Joe Franklin, CO-OP's vice president of experiential marketing and engagement, said.
“We leave room for that each year,” Franklin said. “We’re able to pivot and go where we need to. It's credit unions’ mantra: People helping people. As an organization, we love having the opportunity to do that.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, second from left, welcomes PenFed volunteer Board Member Ron Spear, left, PenFed President/CEO James R. Schenck, San Patricio Branch Manager Angel Martinez Merced and PenFed Vice President-Branch Operations Derrick Harris during Schenck, Harris and Spear's visit to Puerto Rico in October.
Coastal Credit Union of Raleigh, N.C. ($2.9 billion in assets, 239,206 members) gave $250,000 to the Foundation for relief in the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico, and $50,000 to the World Council of Credit Unions to help credit unions in the Caribbean.
BECU of Seattle ($17.6 billion in assets, 1.1 million members) donated $50,000 to the Foundation, $10,000 to the South Carolina Red Cross for Irma relief and $7,000 to match employee donations, Tom Berquist, BECU's SVP of marketing and cooperative affairs, said.
Berquist serves on the Northwest Credit Union Foundation board, which budgets a small amount each year for disaster recovery. It's a practice he said might be appropriate for BECU.
“Right now we don't budget for disaster-type funding, but it's something we probably should consider as we move into ’18 because, unfortunately, it seems to be a little more regular,” he said.
Pentagon Federal Credit Union in Tysons, Va. ($22.8 billion in assets, 1.6 million members) gave $50,000 to the American Red Cross. It has 130,000 members in Texas and more than 200,000 members and three branches in Puerto Rico. It also has ATMs in Jayuya, in the center of the island, about 60 miles from San Juan, and Juana Díaz, about nine miles from Ponce near the southern coast.
PenFed began pursuing a policy of disaster preparedness in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It dispersed back-office operations and communications beyond its Washington base, adding data centers in Eugene, Ore., and Omaha, Neb.
“The entire PenFed infrastructure is built around always on, continuous operation,” PenFed President/CEO James R. Schenck said. “We plan to run remotely, even if employees can't come to work for up to 90 days. If the Alexandria area was down because of some threat in the D.C. area, we could serve all 1.6 million of our members from our Omaha and Eugene service centers.”
The move to redundant data centers came after executives abandoned plans that depended on backup data centers, where key staff would retreat to when the main location was inoperable or threatened.
“In a crisis, that's not going to happen,” Schenck said. “You have to have that data center already built with human links already there in a different region because no one is leaving their family in Washington to go run a disaster site somewhere else.”
A business continuity team monitors news from around the world that might impact PenFed operations, from threats of anthrax to the avian flu.
PenFed stores packaged foods, gloves, bottled water and other critical emergency supplies. It manages those supplies so that the freshness dates for water and packaged foods don't expire. And it conducts regular disaster recovery drills.
Its data centers have provisions to allow employees to shelter in place, if necessary.
As Harvey approached Texas, PenFed's business continuity team was put in full gear. Branch managers and regional managers were on two or three calls a day to ensure there would be food, diesel fuel for generators and provisions to resupply the fuel.
Of course, the other critical need was cash. PenFed already had contracts in place that ensured its ATMs had priority for keeping dollars flowing to the machines.
Only one day after Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Houston Aug. 25, the National Hurricane Center began tracking the tropical storm off Africa that would become Irma.
Irma reached the Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane Sept. 5, skirted Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and was still a Category 4 storm when it reached Florida Sept. 10.
PSCU sent its 600 employees at its St. Petersburg offices home, except for a group of four facilities employees who hunkered down to make sure generators fired up when the power went off, and to minimize any damage. The crew and their equipment weathered the storm well.
Three days later, the NHC began watching another tropical storm in the Atlantic. It was upgraded to Hurricane Maria Sept. 17, and swiftly grew into a Category 5. It struck Puerto Rico Sept. 20.
Unlike Harvey, which caused most of its damage through flooding, Maria's winds tore off roofs, downed power lines and caused extensive damage to other electrical infrastructure.
PenFed has two branches in Puerto Rico – one is on Fort Buchanan, about five miles inland from San Juan, and its San Patricio branch is two miles to the east of the base in Guaynabo.
PenFed sent its 49 employees home a day before the storm hit, but they were back at work two days after the storm. Its branches reopened, but hours were limited so workers wouldn't have to drive in the dark. Commutes that usually took 20 minutes were now taking two hours.
ATMs had a steady supply of cash. Before the crisis, cash limits on its ATMs were lifted and the machines were stocked up. PenFed had contracts in place with its suppliers to ensure that cash deliveries occurred daily in such an emergency, instead of two or three times a week.
PenFed also waived its transaction fees. Its generators hummed, allowing the machines to spit out hundreds of thousands of $10 and $20 bills each day to members and non-members alike.
“They’ve been able to come to our ATMs every day,” Schenk said. “It's a cash society right now. Most of the small merchants don't have access to telecommunications. So they want $10 or $20 bills.”
After the hurricane, PenFed employees communicated from the mainland to Puerto Rico through voice-over-internet and cell phones. They also pulled out satellite phones that had been provided for such emergencies to each major office and key branches.
“Satellite phones are key. They’re expensive – $3 to $5 a minute. But in a crisis you don't care what it costs. You need commo,” he said.
PenFed employees turned out to be luckier than most of their neighbors and other family members. They had food, water and flushable toilets. With generators operating in the branches, employees had lights, power for phones and computers, and even air conditioning.
“Their houses had no power, no air conditioning, no flushable toilets and no food,” he said.
What food and supplies were available had to be bought at inflated prices. PenFed's board approved a cash stipend to help its employees in Puerto Rico. It also shipped 49 generators to the island for employees who needed them. Those who already had generators donated them to others. It also delivered batteries, flashlights, candles, baby wipes and several weeks’ supply of Meals Ready to Eat (packaged military meals).
“It's one less thing they have to worry about if the grocery store shelf is vacant that night,” he said. “They would at least have something that would provide a healthy meal.”
Schenck was unable to travel to Puerto Rico for three weeks. He has traveled to 29 countries, but was shocked by the conditions when he landed Oct. 17.
“I’ve never been to a country where all the traffic lights were out, where most of the restaurants were closed, where at night most of the buildings were dark,” he said. “It was absolutely devastating. When you don't have power, you don't have running water and you don't have fuel to cook anything.”
Schenck encouraged leaders of other large credit unions to help one of the other 30 credit unions in Puerto Rico. “It's not on the news every 24 hours, but there's real need still there,” he said. “It's still a humanitarian crisis.”
PenFed's board has allowed 2% of its net income each year to be given to charity. This year net income is expected to be $170 million, which will allow PenFed to give $3.4 million in 2018 to the PenFed Foundation and other non-profits. Over the last few years, PenFed has given about $10 million back to the community.
Schenck said PenFed's contributions compare favorably to “some of the best for-profits,” which he said donate 1% of their net income.
“We like 2%,” he said. “We want to make a statement as a credit union that we give back to the national defense community, which is our field of membership and those who support them.”