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LOS ANGELES – Your home has just been severely damaged in a hurricane, flood or tornado. Your workplace – and with it your job – are also gone. What should you do about your mortgage? How are you going to obtain copies of all your missing financial documents? HOPE Coalition America and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency are forming a network of volunteers from financial institutions around the country who can help disaster victims find answers to questions like those. Under a memorandum of understanding signed January 21, people who contact FEMA following a Presidentially-declared disaster or emergency will be directed to HCA for free financial counseling. Services will include emergency budget counseling, emergency credit management, advice on accessing emergency mortgage assistance and working with creditors, referrals to government and private agencies, and help obtaining copies of destroyed financial documents. The effort will be launched when HCA receives a call from the federal government alerting it to the situation and the need for economic counseling volunteers. HCA officials will then convene by teleconference within 48 hours to determine their response. A staff person will be sent to the disaster site to coordinate with federal officials and HCA volunteers. Within 72 hours of the decision to respond, HCA will ask participating HCA institutions and employees in the general geographic area of the disaster to volunteer. The volunteers will be directed when and where to report for a two-hour briefing that will prepare them as HOPE Corps members. They will then be assigned to an on-site disaster recovery center or a FEMA phone bank, depending on volunteer availability and disaster response need. Banks and insurance companies are among the partners who have already signed on, and credit unions are welcome, says HCA spokesman Andrew Sousa. “We could always use more partners,” he stresses. “We recently had a press conference here in Los Angeles and a press conference with (Department of Homeland Security head) Tom Ridge. The reason behind those press conferences is not really to toot our own horn, but for financial institutions to see this and become partners. “It’s in everyone’s best interest not to force somebody into bankruptcy because something happened that is beyond that person’s control.” Wescom Credit Union in Pasadena is already exploring a formal commitment to the program. Wescom spokesman Max Sucee noted the credit union has traditionally extended help to members during disasters such as the wildfires which hit Southern California last fall. The list of programs offered included interest free loans, deferred payments to those sustaining property damage or loss, free replacement checks, waiving of early withdrawal penalties on CDs, and quick negotiation of checks from insurance companies or agencies such as FEMA. The HCA approach would fit right into how Wescom sees its role, Sucee added. Credit unions interested in more information can contact Karen Clark, Operation Hope senior vp/chief of relationships at (213) 891-2900, or by e-mail at karen.clark@operationhope.org. Sousa explains HCA is a spin-off from Operation HOPE, a private sector economic counseling effort established to help people improve their credit to a point where they can qualify for mortgages or small business loans. “We opened an office at 1 Liberty in New York City in late August, 2001. Less than a month later that office was shut down when the World Trade Center was attacked,” Sousa says. “The folks at Operation HOPE were very concerned about the employees who worked there. Our CEO got a call from a man whose mother-in-law lived in Manhattan. The caller wondered if his mother-in-law, who was financially well off, had no way of getting out of downtown New York and no access to banking services, what was it like for the 7,000 janitors who worked in the World Trade Center?” That sparked the idea of providing economic counseling to people affected by disasters and emergencies. -

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