LADYSMITH, Wis. – As recent wildfires in California forced credit union staffs from their offices, it may have given credit union presidents elsewhere pause as they recalled their own credit unions' disaster plans. While forest fires are not the usual culprits in the Midwest, credit unions here still could round up a list of the usual suspects, natural and manmade, that might affect their operations. Tornadoes and high winds, floods, blackouts, gas leaks, building fires and bomb threats are among the possibilities for which to prepare. Credit unions probably all review disaster plans a couple times a year, said Jerry Chepil, assistant manager for the Heritage Credit Union branch in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. "Fire, tornado, yeah, we know what to do. You always review the possibility of a robbery. That could happen any day. But floods, fires, tornadoes … who thinks it's ever going to happen? It's not that you don't take it seriously, but you go over it, and go over it quickly, because it won't happen here." But it happened for Heritage. On Sept. 2, 2002, a tornado 440 yards wide raked through 16 miles of Rusk County including the community of Ladysmith, injuring 27 and causing $25 million in damage. In downtown Ladysmith, 40 buildings were destroyed and 159 damaged. Heritage Credit Union was relatively lucky. Boards went through the roof, roofing and siding were lost, windows were broken but the building stood. Fortunately, said Chepil, the tornado struck on Labor Day when it was relatively quiet and the credit union office was closed. But the experience was an eye-opener, he said. "I guess until it happens you don't know what really happens," he said, recalling that emergency personnel blocked off parts of the community, downed trees and power lines created safety problems and people were told not to re-enter buildings until they had been declared structurally safe. Chepil made his way to the credit union that day. "We had to get the roof patched up. There was a hole in the roof right above the computers. We had to make sure the building was secure." The experience brought lessons, said Chepil. Among them, credit unions should: * be aware of the need for proper employment identification for credit union personnel … "not just a driver's license but something such as a business card to let emergency personnel know why you need to enter the credit union." * have contact information for service people. "Who is your electrician? Who handles your heating and air conditioning? Who can repair or replace windows?" * have a back-up plan to your back-up. "Who are the back-up people to call in case the people you call aren't available?" * be sure all personnel are aware of the disaster plan and how it works. "You may think that everybody knows the plan but turnover is a key factor. In a three-month period, you may have one or two new people that have not been brought up to speed on the disaster plan. "I think it made us much more aware. You sit down and cover things a bit more in depth," he said. Tornadoes are nothing new in Missouri, either. In just the first half of 2003, 109 tornadoes were reported in the state, according to the National Climatic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Cape Regional Credit Union in Cape Girardeau is in a "very tornado-prone area," says its president and manager Jim Cauble. "Our main disaster plan basically is for a total wipeout due to a tornado," he says, noting that the credit union has a yearly review of the plan. "We've really not had practice run-throughs, and it is probably something we should do. But we have two locations, two miles apart, and can function out of one if something happens to the other. Thank goodness, we have not had to put the plan into action." Preparedness does make a difference, says Ernie Jackson, CEO of CommStar Credit Union in Elyria, Ohio. "It does help you. You're not saying `What do we do now?' If you are not prepared, if you don't have a plan of action down in writing, you will be going through a lot of motions." Jackson and his CommStar staff were ready last August when the power blackout occurred over the Northeast. Fortunately the situation was short-lived for CommStar, coming at the end of the day, and did not affect it operationally. "The power was restored before the next day," said Jackson. If it had not been, the credit union, which only has one office, would have put its full disaster plan into play. Jackson said the plan allows the credit union to operate manually for a short period. If its office is unusable, CommStar staff can work out of another credit union with which it has a reciprocal agreement. Because both credit unions use the same data processor, the CommStar staff would be able to access its database from the other credit union. "It's important to have a plan in writing. We have binders that include the plan throughout the building as well as offsite," said Jackson. "We have all of the critical information, phone numbers, contacts, calling list, where to meet." It is updated frequently, he said, because people move or change, equipment or the various systems change. With more than 15,500 members and one office, Wayne Westland Federal Credit Union in Westland, Mich., plan had it operating at a shared branch service center if it had problems because of tornadoes, chemical spills and everything else. But in the August blackout, the credit union found itself and its contingency branch center both inoperable. "Thank goodness, it was only for a couple days," said Thelma Dasho, president. "When the power came back on, we opened extra early and didn't close until all members were taken care of. We are very grateful to our members. It was the busiest day we ever had." The experience has the credit union considering a novel approach to handling potential disasters. "We are looking into literally bringing in a trailer branch with a drive-through/night deposit/ATM." She said a company the credit union is considering advertises that it can be at a site and set up with generators within 12 hours of a disaster. "You could be right back in business the very next day. We've got all the information, now we just need board approval." Another possibility, she said, would be to have some type of alliance with another credit union in the same general area – "even if you paid that credit union – in case you had a disaster, especially if you've only got one office."

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