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PASCAGOULA, Miss. – As a Katrina survivor, Laurin Avara, executive vice president of the $230 million Navigator Credit Union, rates the comeback of his CU as pretty darn good thanks to what he calls the outstanding performance of his staff and the generous contributions from CUs across the land. “It’s all been quite a challenge,” observed Avara, who lost his home to the storm and ended up for months living with relatives. As for Navigator, the state’s second largest, three of its 10 branches remain closed with damage claims topping $2 million, but “things have settled down enough” that a bit of normalcy is starting to return, said Avara. Still, the CU witnessed a 10% drop-off in its employee count while membership has actually increased to 26,000 since the Aug. 29 storm. The biggest concern, and “one I would call moving into uncharted territory”, is determining the best way to care for front line personnel “who on a daily basis have to confront their own loss and grief as well as our members,” said Avara. That is why the CU conducted counseling sessions in January for victimized staffers and plans more soon, said Avara. “You know in June we approach a new hurricane season and so we don’t really know the trigger points when our staff will need help again to deal with that kind of stress,” said Avara. Avara cannot say enough about the help his CU has received in both equipment and manpower from CUNA, the Mississippi League and other CUs across the country to keep operating even on a skeletal scale after the storm hit. Navigator was considered one of the hardest hit Gulf Coast CUs, having lost its phone system and the downing of data processing operations. Coming to Navigator’s rescue were a host of CUs, foundations and agencies that shipped in pallets of supplies as well as transported ATM trailers from as far away as Wichita, Kan. to serve as temporary branches. “The support was overwhelming,” said Avara, who scrambled for a list of donors. “I don’t want to forget anybody.” Among those CUs which contributed to Navigator’s recovery were Redstone FCU in Huntsville, Ala.; Tinker FCU in Oklahoma City; Sun CU, Hollywood, Fla.; University FCU in Mobile, Ala.; Western FCU in California and Boeing Wichita CU in Kansas. Avara said one thing he has learned from his experience in Katrina as well as being a veteran of hurricanes Frederick, Elaine and George, is that a successful recovery “depends on the welfare of your people” and not so much on the buildings and equipment. “The trauma and stress felt by your employees after the storm is what counts,” said Avara. “These tellers come to work every day confronting angry or grief-stricken members who lost everything and they just want help in getting access to cash and transferring funds.” Despite their own loss, “these employees handle the job graciously” making it incumbent upon the CU to recognize these contributions “and provide them the flexibility to deal with their personal problems and that means giving them time off to meet with FEMA or with SBA.” Avara said “everyone in this part of Mississippi was impacted” by the storm and those who saw their homes destroyed also “saw their high school kids sleeping in tents.” Downplaying his own Katrina story, he acknowledged that he finally moved into a new home Dec. 29. His own two-story home not far from the beach was condemned. Katrina has been hard on all the members of the Avara family including his father, W. T. Avara, Navigator’s longtime president/CEO. “It’s not easy living with this kind of uncertainty” but Navigator has managed to come through in good shape, concluded Laurin. -

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