Three months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, much of the U.S. territory remains without power and daily life still has not returned to normal, but credit unions with a presence on the island are doing their best to make banking (and life in general) easier for the beleaguered residents.
The storm, which hit the Caribbean in late September with winds gusting as high as 155 miles per hour, rendered power grids and mobile-phone networks useless, while delivering landslides that buried entire neighborhoods, and leaving billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage in its wake.
Among the credit unions to be impacted was Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Baxter Credit Union, which has 37 employees based on the island and serves about 30,000 members there.
In a late October statement, Jill Sammons, BCU’s AVP of communications and brand strategy, said even though distribution of food, water and fuel supplies had returned to “near normal” levels, the most critical issue immediately after the storm was to ensure that every one of their employees was accounted for and safe. Luckily, since most of BCU’s branch locations are located on company partner (SEG) campuses, they were able to establish branch connectivity using their generator power.
BCU immediately began offering assistance to members, by, among other things, offering deferred payment on all existing loans for 90 days, waiving all fees through Oct. 31, 2017, waiving ATM fees through Nov. 30, 2017, increasing credit card and debit overdraft limits, and offering low-cost relief funds.
Furthermore, with the help of its SEGs and business partners, BCU was able to deliver satellite phones and other services to support communication.
BCU’s mainland employees and partners raised more than $40,000 and dedicated their annual “Angel Tree of Giving” program to provide direct assistance for their colleagues on the island. Combined with BCU’s matching, nearly $100,000 of aide was given to BCU employees in early December.
“It was during those earliest and most difficult hours we did what BCU does best,” Tom Moore, BCU’s executive vice president, said recently. “We came together and rose to the challenge, overcoming every obstacle we were faced with.”
Help from the mainland
Much closer to the storm was Miami Lakes, Fla.-based JetStream FCU, which operates one branch in Puerto Rico. In the days immediately following the storm, the credit union quickly worked to determine that all employees at the Puerto Rico branch were safe and sound, along with temporarily waiving some fees.
The credit union also began a program to help Puerto Ricans migrate to the Mainland.
“We are continuing with our normal efforts to assist our Puerto Rican membership both on the island and those relocating to the mainland,” Jeanne Kucey, president and CEO of JetStream FCU, told Credit Union Journal recently. ”This includes disaster assistance, no-credit check loans, wavier of certain fees and suspended loan payments for 90 days. Unfortunately the need is great and we don’t currently have the resources to expand our efforts beyond our current membership.”
On a happier note, she said, JetStream FCU recently flew its entire Puerto Rican team into Miami for a holiday dinner and party.
”They were each allowed to bring a guest,” Kucey added. “They flew in … toured our administrative headquarters and Miami Lakes branch, attended our celebration and flew home. At the [Miami Lakes] branch, one of our Puerto Rican team members ran into a member who had just moved to Florida from Puerto Rico. They were surprised to see each other in Miami.”
The Puerto Rico team, she added, expressed their thanks for all of the support, food, and supplies “that we have given them over the last few months.”
Now 'fully serving' Puerto Rican members
First Tech Federal Credit Union, an $11 billion institution based in Mountain View, Calif., also has branches and members in Puerto Rico.
Traci Ketchum-Hallinan, senior manager-PR and integrated marketing at First Tech FCU, told Credit Union Journal that it is now “fully serving” its entire member base in Puerto Rico.
“We continue to support our members as the community recovers from this catastrophic hurricane,” she said. “Both First Tech branches and our three ATMs were up and running prior to the holidays.”
During the recovery period, Ketchum-Hallinan added, First Tech “provided support to our staff and their families by sending much needed health and safety supplies. We also partnered with a larger SEG, along with the local government, to provide ‘Grab and Go’ supplies to community members. Our teams provided snacks to over 1,000 citizens, while our corporate teams worked to refund late fees and set up skip pays for members struggling during this crisis.”