ELIZABETH, N.J.–After 10 days without power, employees at Public Service FCU here are getting tired of working in the cold and the dark, and warming their hands from the heat of desk lamps.

Public Service FCU was among the hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy. While some CUs remain without power and others were still out of touch at press time, the majority of credit unions affected by the storm are back in operations, with many saying they have found a few holes in their disaster plans.

But at press time, there were concerns about yet another storm in progress, even as Sandy’s after-effects were still being felt. Municipal CU in New York City has had to deal with bad press after it experienced problems in posting information to member accounts and with the availability of its online systems. Other credit unions have re-opened their doors only to find transportation problems limiting employees ability to make it to work. And at least one CU is paying to put some of its employees up in a hotel.

At one point, NCUA reported 118 CUs were not operational, but many of those are now back online. The agency is also making emergency assistance grants available.

Meanwhile, at the still dark Public Service FCU, “Miraculously, we found some phones that don’t need electricity, and we’ve plugged them into the wall and they worked,” said Elizabeth Frentz, CEO at the 2,600-member, $27-million credit union.

At presstime, PSFCU also did not have Internet service, so an employee with Internet access has been working off-site with a laptop, and adjusting balances and making other changes to the CU’s accounts on request.

Public Service is one of many credit unions throughout the Northeast struggling to get back to normal in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Many have restored operations, but much work remains to be done, including repairs to damaged branches, moving off of generator power and reassessing disaster recovery plans.

“It really tested our disaster recovery, and we found some things that have some holes in them,” said Frentz. “Even if we had power here, if we didn’t have Internet we still wouldn’t be functioning; we had damage to our Verizon lines, too.”

 

Lesson Learned About Disaster Plan

Part of the problem at Public Service has been the difference between planning for an emergency lasting two days and one that stretches well beyond a week, said Frentz. Another issue: not realizing how much the credit union relies on the Internet. Public Service keeps its server on-site, which means services such as the in-house ATM, online banking and phones can’t function. Frentz said she has not yet begun to consider whether or not PSCU will move its server off-site.

That’s the case for many of the changes that she says will be made to the credit union’s disaster recovery plans: she knows they’ll need to be made, but until things get back to normal, she’s taking it one day at a time.

“I feel like my head is totally spinning from every aspect,” Frentz said. “From being concerned for my own staff, me personally and then having all of the concerns for my members, it’s hard to think. And it’s getting harder to think when you’re cold.”

The storm killed more than 100 people and downed power lines up and down the East Coast, and at press time many credit unions in New York were still without power. Bonnie Sklar, public relations coordinator at the Credit Union Association of New York, said the CUANY has still not heard from all of its member credit unions, especially many small CUs with abbreviated hours.

“The majority of our credit unions are operational; they may not be fully operational because they’re dealing with those issues of not having phones and electricity,” she said. “All of those things are still present, but a lot of them are there to make sure that if people come in, they can give them funds. Not all of their branches are open.”

 

The Good News

The good news, however, is that no CUs in New York have so far reported any major structural damage, said Sklar, though many have suffered water damage.

“Damage reports I think will be slow coming in because they’re trying to get everything open and operational,” she said.

CUNA Mutual Group said that 40 credit unions in eight states have indicated they suffered at least some damage; the bulk of those CUs are in New York City, Long Island and the Jersey Shore. CUNA Mutual does not yet have an estimated dollar amount for total damages.

Meanwhile, in hard-hit New Jersey, most affected credit unions are back online, according to the league.

“A good majority are back up and operational; no one has told us that they’ll be completely without normal functionality for an extended period of time,” said Candice Nigro, director of marketing and communications at the New Jersey CU League. “I don’t think there’s anybody who’s not getting what they need (from the league) at this point in terms of making their credit union operational.”

But plenty of credit union employees are still facing down the same challenges as members, and Nigro reported that some New Jersey CUs with branches in New York City were not only struggling to re-open, but dealing with transit issues as well. Because some CUs have employees that depend on PATH trains, the New York City subway system, New Jersey transit and more, Nigro said that getting staff to the branch remains an issue.

Meanwhile, Linda Armyn, SVP-corporate strategy with Bethpage, N.Y.-based Bethpage FCU, reported that approximately 130 of BFCU’s 575 employees were still without power 10 days after the storm hit, and as many as 30 employees’ homes are uninhabitable. Bethpage Federal Credit Union is putting displaced employees in hotels for up to two weeks at its own expense and allowing employees with Internet service to work from home.

Armyn said Bethpage is “methodical” about crisis management, and has been having multiple meetings each day since before the storm began, sometimes as early as 5:30 a.m. The CU’s headquarters were up and running within days of the storm thanks to a quick turnaround on getting power back to the facility, and more than 15 branches were opened two days after the storm hit, with more following each day. Bethpage branches only sustained minor damage.

Armyn said that Bethpage was adequately prepared for the storm, but there were some things that no one could have prepared for, including gas shortages, transportation issues, extended power outages and more. Between 9/11 and Hurricane Irene last year, she said BFCU has experience with disasters and will only be making minor tweaks to its disaster plan.

 

It Could Have Been Different

But Armyn said that had the power not come back on so quickly, it could have been a very different situation for the credit union–particularly in dealing with competition for gas to run generators. She credited Bethpage’s AVP of facilities with helping get electricity back so quickly.

“You have to really be on top of the people at the power authority and say 'I’m a financial institution, our members need access to their money and our generators are only going to last so long,’” she said. That VP of facilities “kept calling and was in constant communication. We build relationships with people. When you build these relationships and you’re in a crisis, it helps because they take your call and they help.”

 

Aspiring To The Cloud

Damages were also minimal at Aspire FCU in Clark, N.J., but there are plenty of changes to be made now that the recovery phase has begun. Chief among them, said President/CEO Tom O’Shea, will be moving more services to the cloud, which it plans to begin early next year.

One other project that will need to quickly be addressed is finding a new back-up site. “We have a disaster recovery site at one of our branches near JFK (airport),” said O’Shea. “That’s an excellent location, but the problem is that we couldn’t get to it. Bridges were closed, roads closed, et cetera. So now we’re completely thinking about how we manage our back-up; where’s our site and how far or close does it need to be? We’d heard a rule of thumb that your disaster recovery site should be 60 miles from your current location. That would’ve been completely useless to us.”

Aspire also worked to make sure employees could take care of themselves at the same time that they took care of members. Many parents brought their children to the office, where they watched movies and colored, and spouses of employees were offered space at the credit union if home offices were unusable or they were not able to get to their office. O’Shea said that by taking care of employees, staff was then able to be less stressed and better serve members.

In the end, O’Shea said that the fact that the CU didn’t lose power “was probably 99% of the battle.” But he was quick to add that good preparation and remote services were key to getting the CU up and running as quickly as possible. “The way we’re configured, our main servers are remotely configured … even when we shut down our services locally, member service was unaffected.”

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