By TED CARTER
Prospects for a bleak morning turned to brightness Tuesday for Hancock Bank’s John Hairston by the time he rang the bell to start the Nasdaq Stock Exchange’s trading day.
With the bell sounded, four days of historic drops gave way to stock price gains that by the end of the day shifted into reverse. Wednesday trading brought a upward surge, however.
“You know you always want to ring the bell on a rally day,” said Hairston, president & CEO of Gulfport-based Hancock Bank.
It was another sort of rebound – the Gulf Coast’s return to life after Katrina 10 years ago – that brought Hairston to New York. The honor of ringing the bell, which today is done by touching a computer monitor screen, came to the banking veteran in honor of the energy and resourcefulness Hancock and its people put forth to help coast residents regain a measure of normalcy in their lives in the days, weeks and months after Katrina.
The numbers relating to the destruction of the Aug. 29, 2005 hurricane are well known: More than one million homes destroyed, thousands of businesses left in shambles, more than 1,800 lives lost.
Perhaps lesser known is Hancock’s struggle to put paper money into the hands of storm victims, setting up card tables outside destroyed bank branches to cash checks and make loans on scratch paper to residents who had to swim out of their homes without any belongings.
Within a few days, Hairston and other Hancock executives held paper IOUs for tens of millions of dollars disbursed to residents.
Normally, such practices would give bank regulators fits. But instead, Hairston said, “they became phenomenal partners. They knew the best service we could provide our economy was to keep doing what we were doing. They knew we had the capital to cover our risk…. They’d walk in the door and ask, ‘How can we help?’”
At least 20 percent of Hancock’s workers had lost their homes and belongings and the bank itself had lost over one million square feet of office space, including its headquarters building at One Hancock Plaza in Gulfport.
“The team began to open up the card-table locations within 24 hours,” Hairston said, recalling that the makeshift branches also serviced customers of some of the other banks along the coast that had not yet reopened.
But ahead of those openings, it was not entirely clear where to get the enormous amount of paper money Gulf residents would need. “An enterprising group within our bank came up with the idea of getting all of the cash out of the ATMs,” many of which were underwater, Hairston said.
“They had to take all of that cash – a lot of it was soiled from saltwater – and wash and dry it and put it back out into the branches.”
At the time, added Hairston, “the job description was ‘Whatever it takes.’”
Fortunately, not all the money had to be washed and dried. With the storm coming, Hancock had put large amounts of extra money in vaults outside the bank’s market area.
“There were plans for such a disaster already put together,” he said, “although those plans did not contemplate something worse than Camille,” an August 1969 hurricane that flattened the Mississippi coast and killed 259 people.
One of the best decisions Hancock made in the hours after the storm was accepting an offer from a disaster recovery crew to clear out the Hancock Plaza headquarters. Workers formed a human chain to remove loads of boxes containing documents and other valuable materials, Hairston recalled.
This, he said, “gave us a really good head start.”
Hancock disbursed more than money after Katrina. It secured warehouse space and invited residents to bring 5-gallon fuel cans in. “Leave them today and they will be full tomorrow,” Hairston said Hancock’s workers told the storm victims.
Drivers from the bank took the cans and drove into Alabama’s interior every night and through the early morning to find service stations at which to fill the cans, Hairston said.
Among Hancock’s losses was its call center and data center. Backup data centers in Purvis and Denham Springs, La., proved especially valuable, as did the devotion of the workers sent from the ravaged coast to work in the centers, Hairston said, his voice trailing off as he added: “When I talk about the sacrifices of our people… riding the buses to our backup centers and then returning to work on their homes…”
Hairston said he is especially grateful to the hand Jackson’s Trustmark Bank provided in giving Hancock the use of its magnetic ink proofing machines. Without the proofing machines applying the magnetic ink, the amounts written on checks could not be read electronically.
Hairston said he and Billy Hewes, a then-state legislator who is now Gulfport’s mayor, drove a moving truck to Jackson. There, Trustmark’s Jerry Host and James Outlaw Jr. loaded some of the bank’s proofing machines onto the truck.
Having the proofing machines allowed Hancock to bring home 25 staffers who had been stuck in Atlanta operating proofing machines there.
“We were so happy we could tell our people they could home and begin working on their homes,” Hairston said.
In the decade since Katrina, Hancock has more than quadrupled in size, with a huge chunk of that growth coming with the acquisition of Louisiana’s Whitney Bank in 2011, taking Hancock Holding Company’s assets from $4.8 billion to $21.5 billion.
Hancock has set up a backup data center in Chicago and moved other of its more sensitive data operations to Montgomery “just to get them off the coast,” Hairston said.
He sees the opportunity to ring the stock exchange bell Tuesday as an honor that reflects the guts, grittiness and resilience of Hancock Bank’s workers and the rest of the Mississippi coast, Hairston noted.
“It’s not something I’d like to go through again. But it became our company’s finest hour.”
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