Communication Is the First Hurdle in Disaster Recovery

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has designated September as National Preparedness Month, but in 2011, credit unions in many states haven’t needed this reminder. From wildfires in the Southwest to tornadoes in the South and an earthquake and hurricane reaching the Northeast coast, this year has presented unusual perils for credit unions and their members.

Mike Retelle, CUNA Mutual’s Disaster Response Team leader, has been in the thick of disaster recovery operations as a claims specialist for three decades. He says no matter what kind of emergency strikes credit unions, one common factor usually has a profound effect on how quickly they restore service to members: communication.

‘What Should We Do First?’
“When people call me after a major loss, they usually say, ‘What should we do first?’ I tell them to contact their employees to see who’s available, who needs help, and to tell them the plan for restoring service,” Retelle says.

This can be a huge challenge, he adds, especially if the credit union doesn’t regularly remind employees what to do if a credit union facility is damaged or destroyed.

Every credit union has a disaster recovery plan, in accordance with NCUA regulations. But unless employees have practiced the plan, it probably won’t be effective, at least not immediately, Retelle says.

The ‘Cheat Sheet’
A useful tool in a disaster recovery plan is a “cheat sheet” of first steps to take in the event of a disaster, which employees keep with them or at home. For example, it should provide alternate locations designated for temporary branch service.

The cheat sheet should also include phone numbers and emails to use if phones or internet service are available. Landlines are often the best bet, Retelle says.

“Hurricane Katrina taught us not to rely on cell phones—cell towers often go down before phone lines.” However, land lines in some areas can become gridlocked with emergency calls, and phone companies may allow outgoing calls to emergency services but not incoming calls to non-essential lines.

Retelle offers two suggestions to put in place now so that as many employees can be reached as possible when phone service is unreliable:

  • Phone trees: On each employee’s cheat sheet, include the names and contact information of several other employees. Have them call each person on their list—they may get through to one co-worker that in turn has found someone else, and so on. Word about who’s available, who might need assistance, and what to do next can spread surprisingly fast this way, Retelle says.
  • League-hosted toll-free lines: Set up an agreement with your state league to provide a toll-free number for employees to call in a disaster situation. While phone companies may need to restrict outgoing calls within the disaster area, a call to another city may still go through. With your league, pre-arrange a method for recording and updating messages for employees.

Review Coverages With a Sharp Eye
Retelle urges credit unions to look closely at their insurance coverages before the next renewal date. Assess whether your insurance coverage limits are enough to replace a total loss, especially if you’ve recently made property improvements. And in light of the surprises nature has delivered across the country in 2011, Retelle says, “Be sure you understand not only what your insurance covers, but what it doesn’t cover.”

Mike Retelle is CUNA Mutual Group’s Disaster Response Team leader. For more information about disaster planning/preparedness, Credit Union Bond policyholders can access the Protection Resource Center at

Insurance products offered to credit unions are underwritten by CUMIS Insurance Society, Inc., a member of the CUNA Mutual Group.

All rights reserved, CUNA Mutual Group, 2011

Posted in CUNA.