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Katrina And Rita: A Security Officer's Nightmare

The week before Katrina hit, I had lunch in Jackson, Mississippi with Mary Lois Stockman, VP and Security Officer of BancorpSouth. Mary Lois' bank is a $10 billion regional bank with 240 locations across the Mid-South - including many in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. She was looking forward to coming again to the Bankers' Hotline Security Officers Workshop a few weeks later. Of course, things turned out differently for her. We exchanged several emails over the course of the following weeks - and she said she wouldn't mind my sharing some of her thoughts with our readers. Here is some of what she wrote:

"We could have tested our Disaster & Recovery Plan thousands of times and still nothing would have prepared us for the disaster we had. It was so absolutely overwhelming that at first it took away our ability to respond. Problems we never anticipated had to be dealt with, decisions had to be made, and we had to take actions we never anticipated. Some of which were not and will not be part of standard procedures!

"Accounting for employees was difficult for some as they evacuated at the last minute, actually swimming from their homes, and had no way to tell anyone they were leaving or where they were going. Then they couldn't call back into the area after the hurricane. Since this disaster, we are supplying small, laminated cards to put in wallets. Instead of a regular number it will be one of our 1-800 lines that we can turn on and off. Not only will that line be for us to keep account of employees, but also we will have a recording stating which locations are open or when they will be open. We were astonished to find that though many of our employees lost everything - house, vehicles, etc.; several of them still showed up at the branches ready to see what they needed to do or could do. By reporting to the bank and working on opening our locations, it seemed to give them a sense of purpose.

"We found the best means of communication for many were text messaging and Blackberries. Cell phones, even if they were charged, could not always get out, and could very seldom get in. We did manage to obtain satellite phones from a company in Alabama within 48 hours and had them flown in with supplies for our employees - water, food, five day coolers, ice, etc. - and currency.

"We had to supply full security escort at the airport and that created another problem. Guards were at a premium! If you didn't have an arrangement or contract with a company BEFORE the storm then you were at the BOTTOM of the list to get assistance. We typically do not use guards; however, we got 7 or 8 guards for the Mississippi Gulf Coast and then some in Hattiesburg...they were not only helping to deter problems at the branches open and/or operating on generator power, but also they were guarding our fuel tanks and generators. Shortages of fuel in the affected areas caused the panic and unrest to be worse than normal.

"We were glad that we had wired our buildings ahead of time for converting to generator power if necessary. And we had contractors and electricians on call to respond for installing and/or bringing buildings online to the generators. Local assistance was not available - we had to bring them in.

"We didn't realize the absolute necessity of protecting our people through the use of masks, gloves and gowns for processing flooded night deposits, etc. The best are obtained from hospital suppliers. Fortunately, we were able to get enough from a local hospital to use this time. We'll stock them now. Along with plenty of Lysol. We managed to supply our employees with clothes, water, food, and other requested items, so they didn't have to depend on other sources, which were non-existent for a long time. Moving currency and servicing ATMs was a challenge. We created a few runs that are not written up in any of our procedures.

"The only way I can describe the area of some of our branches is that they look like a war zone. But our employees were actually glad to see me (or it could have been the hot meals we were taking!) and were so grateful for anything we could do to help. One employee who had lost everything only asked that I bring her a pair of sandals - and she cried when she got them. People are really pulling together. Also, we brought tellers from other areas to help work on the Coast and they did not have the emotional and personal loss that the Coast employees were dealing with at the time. That helped too.

"We learned some hard lessons. Next time we'll be much better prepared."

Copyright © 2005 Bankers' Hotline. Originally appeared in Bankers' Hotline, Vol. 15, No. 9, 9/05

First published on 09/01/2005

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