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Banks still rising to challenges from Hurricane Katrina

Banks in the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina are back in business after facing numerous challenges and trying days following the storm. When banks opened, the lack of electricity and telecommunications made conducting normal banking business difficult.

None faced more challenges than The Peoples Bank with seven of the system’s 17 banking branches destroyed. Inundated with six feet of water, Waveland, the Biloxi-based bank’s newest branch, had only been open for 11 months and was among those knocked out of action. The Bay St. Louis branch had seven feet of water and the D’Iberville branch had 10 to 12 feet of water. There was nothing left but the vault in Pass Christian. The armored car delivery facility at the corner of Highways 49 and 90 was completely destroyed. The Long Beach and downtown Gulfport branches had only one and a half feet of water. Other branches had roof and minor damages.

“Wherever the storm came ashore, we had a bank branch,” said Chevis C. Swetman, president. “I remember what Camille was like and Katrina was much worse.”

He lived at the bank for the first three weeks following the storm while his wife dealt with the trauma of their destroyed family home. It took eight to 10 days to find out about the bank’s employees and that was the worst part for him.

“I wondered what their status was and it was very hard to get in touch with everyone. Some times cell phones worked and sometimes they didn’t,” he said. “Of the 230 employees, 32 lost everything and 30 to 40 had substantial damage.”

Still, using cell phones and generators, three bank branches were operational the Thursday after the storm struck on Monday. Swetman says there was limited cash right off the bat since armored cars couldn’t get through with some bridges and roadways closed. There was a good bit of cash on hand, however, because a scheduled pick up of cash from casinos did not get transported on the day of the hurricane.

“A lot of it was reassurance,” he said. “Once people knew they could get cash, they weren’t concerned about it.”

As a community leader, Swetman worries that the Coast’s unemployment rate went from 5% to 23% with all of the casinos shut down. “Other than the lack of technology right after the storm, having the casinos closed is my biggest worry,” he said. “It’s so important to get them up and running even on a temporary basis. We have to get the commerce going again.”

The ongoing challenge for The Peoples Bank is to get back into every community where they had a branch. Trailers are being used at several locations. The armored car delivery facility was moved to the main branch in Biloxi.

“Waveland and Gulfport will open soon. Then we’ll be back in all locations,” Swetman said. “We will have employees back working in the branches they normally work in. We’ve tried to have them working close to home.”

Although some safety deposit boxes are not available in water-logged branches, the other branches have been offering all services. Swetman says check volumes are off about 50% but he expects that to recover as casinos and businesses reopen.

“We’ll recover when the branches start sending cash to the main bank,” he said. “Every day it gets better. It’s much better now.”

Up U.S. 49 in Stone County, the Bank of Wiggins met the challenge of cashing checks for their own customers and devastated Coast residents. President Jim Rabby says the bank opened in the dark because they felt people in the area needed cash. “Where else would they get it?” he says. “We knew it would give them comfort.”

At first he intended to only cash checks for local teachers and county employees who had just got paid. Doing everything by hand and with no alarm and no lights, the bank let people in six at a time.

“Then we started cashing checks for everyone, doing it the old-fashioned way,” Rabby said. “People who had lost everything were coming in. Some had only their debit cards and some had no identification. We tried to help and wrote checks on pieces of paper and old counter checks. A lot didn’t even have account numbers but we just couldn’t turn anyone away.”

He recalls a 77-year-old lady who came in with a bank statement in a zip lock bag. He cashed a $500 check for her and it, like the others cashed during those hectic days, cleared.

“We did not lose one cent on the checks we cashed,” the president of this state chartered bank said. “We went through $4 million from the Wednesday after the storm until the following Tuesday. On that Tuesday, we pulled a balance and it was out $156.51.”

Three times during the check cashing blitz, Rabby was escorted by sheriff’s deputies to the Hancock Bank Crossroads branch in Gulfport to buy money.

He is impressed that there were no complaints or incidents as people stood in lines in the heat waiting to get into the bank those first few days. He also feels the community appreciates the Bank of Wiggins being there for them during this time.

Soon after the storm, the bank lost its chairman of the board, Jimmy Bryan. Rabby feels the death was indirectly caused by the trauma of the hurricane’s aftermath as the 87-year-old Bryan dealt with moving his invalid wife to an out-of-state healthcare facility.

“He was a super fine individual and one of the nicest people I’ve ever known,” Rabby said of the retired forester who had served on the bank’s board since 1971. “He was there in the heat the day the bank opened to see if he could help. That’s the kind of person he was.”

Katrina gave the Regions Bank an unwelcome greeting in the 16-state banking system’s first year in Mississippi. The Long Beach branch had nothing but a vault left and the Biloxi branch had a shrimp boat lodged in the drive through. The Gulfport, Bay St. Louis and Pascagoula branches were badly damaged, too, according to Susan Cucullu, marketing director.

“We will have temporary facilities everywhere that branches were damaged,” she said. “We’ve been pleased with how patient our customers were and how compassionate our associates were. Fortunately, we were able to keep everyone employed.”

Like the other banks, AmSouth Bank also was most concerned about its employees and contacting them following the hurricane. “Our employees were fantastic,” said Greg Garraway, president of Hattiesburg and the South Mississippi region. “First, we had to get a head count. Communications were a problem. We left notes at branch locations even when they weren’t open.”

A lot of AmSouth’s employees, including a branch manager, lost their homes. Still, they got facilities open quickly and were up and running after three days. “Employees provided a good support group,” Garraway said. “Some volunteered and took an 18-wheeler filled with supplies to the Gulfport branch and distributed these things. People lined up around the building and were so appreciative.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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