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Industry pulled together in storm’s wake

Much has been written — and no doubt, much will continue to be written — about Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast. The hardships of those directly impacted by the storm went beyond anything the region had experienced before. On a reaffirming note, the selflessness of many individuals, faith-based groups and community groups was inspiring to a region that continues in its long-term rebuilding efforts.

One story that has gone relatively unnoticed is how the banking community responded to its customers, employees, peers and broader region during and after the storm. In researching and writing a recent magazine story on the topic, I had the opportunity over a period of time to interview scores of bankers, regulators, bank associational leaders, economists and residents of local communities to get their perspective on bank operations in Katrina’s immediate aftermath and in the year that has followed. While there have certainly been challenges, frustrations and lessons learned the hard way, there have also been remarkable examples of individuals who went above and beyond the call of duty to serve customers and community residents — even when their own families were displaced or their own homes/properties were damaged or destroyed.

Overwhelmed by employees’ dedication

Looking back at the degree of destruction to banking facilities and broader community infrastructure, as well as transportation and communication impediments, it’s amazing to me that so many banking institutions were able to regroup and provide needed services as quickly as they did. Many assembled makeshift “offices” in stifling heat or shared offices with competitors. While bankers had a host of operational, communication and security issues to contend with, employee well-being and safety were always top-of-mind concerns. In speaking with many executives, I found that they were overwhelmed by the dedication of their employees, many of whom not only showed up for work under extenuating circumstances, but pitched in and did whatever needed to be done to make the situation better.

While Mississippi bankers are highly competitive with each other in their normal business development activities, they pulled together, shared resources and assisted each other in an effort to get much-needed services to customers and residents in what many described as the “cash economy” immediately following the storm. Bankers also credited strong relationships with regulators, bank associational leaders and governmental leaders as instrumental assets in getting answers to problems and in networking with each other for the coordination of available resources.

Learning a few lessons

While banks had emergency planning procedures in place prior to Katrina, they learned from that experience that many elements were contingent upon the availability of fuel, electricity and working communications systems. Emergency plans were also challenged when designated transportation and evacuation routes were closed because of damage to brides or road, debris and other factors. In other situations, bankers sustained unanticipated damage or capacity issues at backup facilities. Importantly, in the time that has passed post-Katrina, bankers and their regulatory and associational-group counterparts have worked together to delineate areas of improvement in modifying and expanding future operational emergency strategies. Many have shared and continue to share this information with banking colleagues throughout the nation.

While no industry segment or institution is perfect, the Mississippi banking community pulled together — instead of apart — when Katrina hit. Looking back nearly a year later, that’s just as important a lesson as one would glean from an emergency operations manual.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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