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Bank rebounding from Katrina’s severe storm damage

Gulfport — Hancock Bank, arguably the financial institution along the Mississippi Gulf Coast hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, is rebounding quickly.

“It’s our home,” said Hancock Bank CEO George Schloegel. “And you protect your home, and you go to work straightening things up after it’s over with. That’s what we’ve always done and what we’ll always do.”

Hancock Bank CFO Carl Chaney estimated physical facility damage totaled approximately $40 million. Of 155 properties in four states, 59 were damaged. Of those, 22 had greater than 50% damage, and nine had greater than 80% damage and were not restorable.

Of the bank’s 2,000 employees, 190 lost homes on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Hattiesburg area, but remarkably, none were injured. “Bricks and two-by-fours can be replaced,” said Chaney. “People can’t. And we were so relieved to find out they were all OK.”

Within hours after the storm, Hancock Bank had opened temporary facilities at all but two damaged branches, which were located in total devastation areas.

“For all these years, we’ve always been the last bank to close and the first bank to open on the route of a hurricane,” said Chaney. “The reason? It’s part of our core values. We’re focused on taking care of the community when it most needs us. And not just when it’s convenient for us. The morning after the storm, on Tuesday at 10 a.m., we were out there doing business. The next day, all of Louisiana was open and so was Florida, minus the affected areas. It’s not a moneymaking venture. We lose money the day before a hurricane and several days after.”

Two or three days following the storm, several commercial customers needing to finance Friday payroll approached Hancock bank leaders.

“We came up with the idea to cut them one check that would cover payroll so they could disperse cash to employees instead of giving them a typical check and having them find their way to a branch that was open,” said Chaney. “Bear in mind that the first 10 days, ice, water and fuel were the three hottest commodities going.”

Hancock Bank COO John Hairston said getting cash was a difficult feat, because the bank’s access to cash in the market area, the Federal Reserve in New Orleans, was under water. “To some degree, we were operating banks out of different businesses just so commercial customers could cash their own checks for their payroll folks,” he said.

Bob Seals, the bank’s corporate marketing director, said bank leaders canvassed the community during the weeks following the storm “to not only understand the needs of customers, but to check on them and to see how they were doing, what level of damage they had, and how we might be able to help them in the future.”

In January, Hancock Bank customers tapped into $1 million available through the SBA’s new Gulf Opportunity Pilot Loan (GO Loan) Program, in which lenders receive SBA guaranty authorization for up to $150,000 in 24 hours or less for small businesses in disaster areas.

“Early on, we partnered with the SBA (U.S. Small Business Administration) and SBDC (Small Business Development Center) to obtain loan applications or conventional credit, whatever the customer’s specific need was, to quickly help him get back on his feet,” said Seals.

A (physically) broken community

Venturing into the storm-ravaged community was heartbreaking for bank leaders, said Hairston.

“If you follow the rivers and the bays and the area right south of the tracks, that’s where you see the loss of life and the greatest frustration of the let’s-get-started-and-get-back mindset,” he said.

“Everywhere else, it’s certainly not business as usual by a long stretch, but the attitudes are, ‘OK, we can get past this and keep going.’ Probably the two biggest things that need to be resolved are the finalization of the flood map, which will have a profound impact on where — and how high — people are going to build, and the Community Block Development Grant program.”

Within the last few months, Hancock Bank, like other South Mississippi banks, has seen an increase in deposits, attributed to a combination of Salvation Army and American Red Cross contributions, insurance checks and general sales activity.

“Every time you have a disaster like that, you see more money circulating in the economy,” explained Schloegel. “More money circulating in an economy means more people have money in their checking and savings accounts, so all the banks grow.”

Despite the rocky third quarter, Hancock Holding Company, the parent company of Hancock Bank (Mississippi), Hancock Bank of Louisiana, Hancock Bank of Florida and Magna Insurance Company, with assets of $5.3 billion, reported a dividend for the quarter ending September 30.

In mid-January, Hancock Bank officials unveiled plans to launch a $35-million-plus restoration project designed to significantly upgrade the company’s One Hancock Plaza corporate headquarters and help revitalize downtown Gulfport. During the hurricane, the building sustained water and salt spray damage.

The 15-story corporate tower will include approximately 30,000 square feet of Class A office space for lease, hurricane-resistant features exceeding current building code standards and additional green space to re-establish the locale as a hub of downtown community activity. One Hancock Plaza also serves as office space for Mississippi Power Company, Port Authority and Harrison County Development Commission. Grace & Hebert Architects, APAC, designed the new plaza, and Roy Anderson Corporation serves as the general contractor. The restoration project should be completed by the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

“Being in the old, historic portion of our complex reminds us that our roots are here on the Coast, and we’ll continue to pursue the task of rebuilding with our friends and neighbors,” said Schloegel, about the 107-year-old bank.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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