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NEW ORLEANS – The staff, volunteers and members of credit unions across the U.S. Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama in the east to New Orleans, Louisiana in the west have been caught up in what may prove to have been the worst natural catastrophe in U.S. history. Hurricane Katrina struck the coast roughly 60 miles southeast of New Orleans early on August 29 as a category four storm, dropping slightly from the category five it had been for most of the night before. Death tolls in Alabama have been estimated in the dozens, from Mississippi in hundreds and Louisiana officials have estimated the death toll from the southern part of their state will reach into the thousands. “We’ve been through hurricanes before,” said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, “but this is easily the worst we have ever seen. Absolutely the worst.” The storm had not seemed to have been that dangerous, hitting South Florida first as a category one storm but still having nine deaths attributed to its passage. But circling and meandering over the warm water in the Gulf, the storm both strengthened and gained direction, aiming straight for New Orleans before turning slightly just before landfall to deliver the hardest punch to Mississippi. Things initially got better in the hour after the hurricane moved north, but not for long. Two of the levees that protect New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain breached early on Tuesday morning, the officials explained, flooding over 85% of the city with water and trapping even more people in their homes and other buildings. The levees did not breach during the actual storm but afterwards, the officials told the press. More than 1,000 people have been rescued from the tops of their houses, some after hacking through their roofs from their attics to escape the rising water and city officials have called for everyone to evacuate the city for the near term. To make things even more complicated, whole highways in Mississippi, along with the bridges into New Orleans have been broken or washed away. In her wake, Katrina left whole communities, some of which had weathered hurricanes for well over 100 years, devastated. In some towns, lines of ante-bellum homes had been swept from their foundations by the storm surge. In other communities, whole sections of downtown, including possibly some credit union branches, had ceased to exist. Communications were among the hurricane’s earliest casualties as phone and power lines dropped and cell towers tumbled. When the storm was over, the existing communications infrastructure could not keep up with the demand and calls into the area from outside encountered only a frustrating mix of busy signals or messages proclaiming busy signals. The least heavily hit was Alabama, which had a smaller Gulf Coast to begin with. The Alabama Credit Union League regained power on August 31 after losing it August 29 but has not yet heard anything from the 15 credit unions with headquarters or branches in the Mobile area, according to Adina Whitman, communication’s director for the League. Mobile was among the hardest hit communities in Alabama from Hurricane Katrina. “Right now we are really in assessment mode,” Whitman explained, adding that communications difficulties had prevented anyone from being able to reach number in the affected area. The League has two staff members in the area who are trying to physically go to the credit union sites as best they can to measure the extent of the damage. It’s unclear whether Louisiana or Mississippi was the worst hit. According to the NCUA, there are 40 credit unions in New Orleans proper, but the majority of them are under $20 million in assets. The city has only six credit unions with assets over $20 million and of those only two, the $101 million Riverland CU and $93 million Coastland FCU, with assets approaching or exceeding $100 million. Of course this does not represent all credit union assets at risk from Hurricane Katrina. The $302 million Campus FCU, headquartered in Baton Rouge, roughly 60 miles inland from New Orleans, has three branches in the city, for example, and there are no firm numbers on how many other credit unions have headquarters or branches in the city’s suburbs. Communications Next to Impossible Communications with both Leagues, not to mention their credit union members, remained a chief problem as of press time. Alicia Blanda, communications director for the Louisiana Credit Union League, reported from Clifton, Georgia, where she and her family had held up, that the League’s top priority as of press time and into the near future remains the safety of credit union staff and volunteers. “Almost all of our staff are safe and accounted for,” Blanda said, speaking from a hotel room. But she said that the League had not heard from the majority of the roughly 50 credit unions that the League estimated were headquartered or had staff in the most damaged area. The League has one staff member who remained in New Orleans and who has not been heard from. Blanda was confident that she had not been able to get through due to the telephone failures and that she would eventually be able to contact someone. Blanda said that she and her husband boarded up their house in New Orleans and evacuated to her mother and father’s house in Mississippi to help them board up their house. “My father is disabled so they needed some help,” she said. The plan had been to cut back across Louisiana to ride the storm out in Baton Rouge, about 70 miles inland from New Orleans. “But we couldn’t go west again,” she said, so they continued east to finally reach Clifton. Blanda’s story was being repeated with variations across all along the Gulf Coast. She said that her sister, weathering the storm in a higher part of Mississippi, was boarding six dogs at her place, all of them left there by family and friends who were evacuating to places where they could not be sure the pets would be allowed to stay. The League’s offices are in Jefferson Parish and the Jefferson Parish government has already announced that none of the parish residents will be allowed to return until Monday September 4 and then only to retrieve essential papers and belongings. The League is working to set up an alternate headquarters at its Shreveport call center and has asked credit unions to check there. The location of the League’s offices proved to be part of the problem. Blanda reported that Louisiana’s is the only Gulf Coast League with offices on the Gulf Coast and that the organization’s servers were located in the headquarters building – a building that Blanda reported her husband had spotted flooded out on CNN. CUNA Mutual Group had helped the League with e-mailing and faxing its credit unions about their attempt to start an alternative headquarters, but it’s difficult to know how many of those credit unions would be able to receive the messages. Of the 50 credit unions the League estimated have been hurt in the hurricane, two of them had checked in on August 31. Campus FCU said it had already begun planning how to reopen its branch in New Orleans and probably opened on August 31 if it had power. But there was no way the credit union could take calls. The $19 million UNO FCU, headquartered at the University of New Orleans, said that it would likely relocate its core operations to Birmingham, Alabama and reopen a branch in the city. The University of New Orleans is right on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain and may not reopen for months. In Mississippi, the Mississippi Credit Union Association’s offices in Jackson were open on Monday morning but then were closed at 1:00 when it became clear that Katrina’s winds were going to still be at hurricane strength when the storm arrived. The office has not been able to receive phone calls since and information from Mississippi has been slow to come out, but there have been signs of damage. The $1 billion Keesler FCU, headquartered in Biloxi at the Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, had been badly damaged enough that some of its employees had contacted PSCU Financial Services on their own to see about making sure their members would have access to the money they needed through their credit and debit cards. One of the employees was trying to coordinate the effort from England, where the credit union maintains an office to serve air force members stationed there. What Happens Next It is unclear when life along the Gulf Coast will be able to get back to normal, but it seems clear that it will be months if not more than a year. The breaches in the New Orleans levees reach for several city blocks and may take weeks to repair, if not months, and until they are fixed the city cannot pump out the water. In Mississippi, highways remain washed out and there are areas of the state where authorities have not even been able to reach to measure damage. “People need to know that we need help and need it badly,” said Blanda. “There’s never been anything like this.” [email protected]

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