Banks and credit unions in Florida are relying on technology more than ever before as one of the strongest hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic barrels toward their state.

Hurricane Irma, which was a Category 5 storm as it hammered the Caribbean on Wednesday, is on a course for Puerto Rico and potentially south Florida. Financial institutions in the storm's projected path are activating emergency plans, hosting meetings with response teams and making sure supplies are stocked.

Technology is playing a big role as financial institutions establish alternative communication channels for employees and pursue ways to provide uninterrupted services to customers.

According to the League of Southeastern Credit Unions, at least four credit unions in the Sunshine State have already closed or announced upcoming closures due to the storm, and more are likely to follow.

In advance of the storm, LSCU is advising credit unions in the state “to take all possible precautions,” President and CEO Patrick La Pine emphasizing that “the safety of staff is of paramount importance.”

Along with preparing to deploy a mobile response unit that can assist credit unions and their members, the league is recommending institutions keep emergency supply kits on-hand, increase cash orders and keep ATMs fully stocked, raise workstations to protect office equipment from flood damage, clear gutters of debris, secure exterior items at branches that could become projectiles, test generators, cover office equipment in plastic to protect from water damage and more.

The National Credit Union Administration on Tuesday warned institutions in Irma’s path to take precautions.

Power Financial Credit Union in Pembroke Pines, north of Miami, was already preparing, said President and CEO Allan Prindle. Staff made sure the institution’s satellite phones were charged, generators were fueled and other supplies were in place.

“We’ve learned a little watching the response to Hurricane Harvey, but years ago we were headquartered in Homestead, so we lived through Hurricane Andrew," Prindle said. "We developed our chops from that.”

The credit union also arranged for extra cash and loaded up its ATMs. Customers generally make a run for cash before a storm strikes. There have been stories of bank executives driving cash to locations that have run short following a natural disaster. After Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, an informal survey found that most banks had enough cash.

The Florida Office of Financial Regulation issued a proclamation on Wednesday authorizing financial institutions with branches in at-risk areas to close. FIs generally wait for authorization from state and federal regulators before closing branches, though executives have the discretion to shutter offices preemptively if conditions are unsafe.

Banks and CUs were asked to contact the state regulator as branches close so the agency could provide updated information to customers.

“Whether it is a credit union or a bank, they pull together,” said Jeremy Smith, director of the state’s division of financial institutions. “National, state, regional and community institutions try to prop everyone up and help impacted customers throughout the state.”

Hurricane veterans

Many Florida bankers are hurricane veterans, including three storms in 2004 and Matthew last year. Banks and CUs have plans they can activate in times of a natural disaster, and a number of institutions have already held meetings to prepare for Irma.

“There’s always a rush to get branch facilities open as quickly as possible, but with technology today, the importance of getting brick and mortar open isn’t as immediate,” said John Corbett, president and CEO of CenterState Banks in Winter Haven, Fla. “As long as people have access to … ATMs, wires and other electronic means, branches probably aren’t as important as they once were.”

The possibility of Irma making landfall in the state had many recounting the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, the 1992 storm that is considered the most destructive to ever hit Florida. Andrew, the last Category 5 hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, passed through Homestead.

“I went down to Homestead a week after [Andrew] and it looked like a nuclear bomb went off,” said Corbett, who grew up in the Miami suburb. “Every tree seemed like it had been snapped off four feet from the ground. All of the stop lights were out.”

Technology matters

The rise of banking technology and broader use of debit and credit cards may have helped avert a widespread run on cash in Texas, industry observers said.

Executives at Seacoast Banking Corp. of Florida in Stuart recounted the role technology played during Matthew. The hurricane was the first more serious storm to hit after the $5.3 billion-asset company had started allowing customers to make remote deposits.

“We saw a surge of deposits via mobile phone even though our offices were all closed,” said Dennis Hudson III, Seacoast’s CEO and chairman. “It was an interesting impact.”

Seacoast processed “well over 500 transactions digitally, including money transfers and remote deposit capture” during Matthew, said Jeff Bray, the company’s head of operations. Seacoast tests “things all the time to make us better at getting responses from employees or customers,” he said.

TotalBank in Miami, which activated its emergency committee earlier this week, is using WhatsApp Messenger, an instant messaging service for smartphones, to reach employees. The $3 billion-asset company has an alternative headquarters site with a generator in case the power cuts out; a third of its branches have generators or hook ups in place.

“Having been a banker in south Florida for 30 years, this isn’t my first rodeo,” said Jay Pelham, Total’s president and CEO. “I was here when Andrew hit in 1992. We’ve had several practice runs with storms that never hit in recent years.”

BankUnited has also activated its hurricane response plan, which initially focuses on ensuring the safety of employees, said Ray Barbone, the Miami Lake company’s bank operations executive. The next goal is to make sure the $29 billion-asset company meets customer needs during the storm and that there are minimal losses to the bank.

BankUnited has also moved employees to alternative sites to ensure services go uninterrupted.

“We learned that having an effective plan in place and executing it timely is important,” Barbone said. “We also learned that you cannot over communicate to your employees in situations like this. Effective communication is crucial.”

As FIs prepare for Irma, they also have to consider employees' personal lives. Bankers may struggle to find childcare as schools close. To get around this, the $645 million-asset Power Financial CU is letting employees bring their kids to work over the next few days, since a number of local school districts have already canceled classes.

“That’s something we learned after Andrew,” Prindle said. “We’ll try to keep [children] entertained and happy.”

While it can be difficult to prepare for a storm, the challenge is magnified during the aftermath of a disaster, Bray said. Employees may lose their homes or be left without electricity, which can make it more difficult to open branches and return to normal.

“The big element of pre-storm versus post-storm is the emotional strain placed on the community and on families,” Bray said. “When you start taking away basic necessities like food, water, transportation and access to care you have put a lot of challenge on the associates and their families. It’s hard to do a job then.”

Aaron Passman, John Reosti and Paul Davis contributed to this story.

This story was updated at 11:10 a.m. on Sept. 9, 2017

Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart covers community banks and mergers and acquisitions for American Banker.