By Evan SparksWhen Hurricane Harvey bore down late last week on the Texas Gulf Coast—the most powerful hurricane to strike Texas in more than half a century—First Community Bank was prepared. For months, the bank’s leaders had been holding weekly emergency readiness meetings and refining their disaster recovery process.
The United States had seen a decade-long reprieve from major hurricanes striking its shores, but from their headquarters in the Gulf of Mexico port city of Corpus Christi, First Community’s leaders knew that they were still vulnerable to wild tropical weather. Just how wild they would find out on Friday, Aug. 25.
That night, Hurricane Harvey barreled ashore as a Category 4 storm just 15 miles west of Corpus, passing the barrier island of Port Aransas and the beach town of Rockport. With winds of up to 132 miles per hour—for nine hours—the storm leveled entire blocks and hurled cargo trailers into buildings. The slow-moving storm dumped more than 20 inches of rain in the area, flooding streets and homes.
And the storm “just stayed put,” says Wes Hoskins, president and CEO of First Community Bank for 20 years. “It was the worst we’ve ever seen.”
Ready for action
At First Community Bank’s 12-story headquarters in downtown Corpus, Hoskins and his team started putting their plan into place earlier in the week. On the Thursday before the storm, the bank deployed its operations team to a hardened backup site with its core processor. The team would ensure that all back-end functions could continue and transactions could move. There would be no interruption in online or mobile services for business and retail customers.
Meanwhile, the bank was ensuring that its ATMs and branches were well-stocked with cash—both in advance of the storm and afterward. VP and IT officer Michael Mincey notes that ATMs saw high use for several days before Harvey hit. And the bank knew customers would need cash handy after the storm passed, especially if power and phone outages were prolonged.
All locations closed Friday and Saturday, and employees hunkered down with their families while the team in Dallas kept an eye on systems. “There’s a lot you can be doing during the storm,” says Mincey. “You can watch your power at your locations, you can watch your network status at all your sites. You can look at the security cameras to see if there’s damage to any of your properties.”
On Saturday, with the worst of the storm past, First Community Bank leaders contacted their team members and surveyed the damage. For the handful of employees and their families who lost their homes, the bank offered emergency shelter space in its headquarters building and secured hotel rooms for them. Having been under the center of the storm, the Rockport branch—a brand-new facility open less than two years—was the most damaged, but power outages and floodwaters also closed branches in nearby Padre Island, Portland and Victoria.
EVP and CFO Sheree Lewis called the bank’s business continuity provider, Rentsys, and arranged for a mobile branch for Rockport. Built into a trailer, the unit includes a vault, office space and teller line and provides for full service banking on a temporary basis. The mobile branch was up and running by Wednesday, although Joanne Sullivan, the bank’s VP for operations, notes that even though the Rockport branch was closed, bankers on site helped out-of-power customers who came by make change so they could use quarters at the laundromat.
First Community Bank quickly began waiving fees for customers (and non-customers) who needed to get cash. The bank waived ATM fees across its network, both out-of-network fees for its own customers and in-network fees for other banks’ clients. The bank is also cashing checks of up to $250 for non-customers living in the most damaged communities around Corpus Christi Bay. To get the word out about the accommodations, as well as branch reopenings and temporary hours, First Community Bank has been active on social media.
The bank is offering their loan customers payment and interest deferrals as needed for up to 90 days and is waiving all late charges on those lines. Late payments for affected loans will not be reported to credit bureaus. “We will be developing a loan program once we get information on [Federal Emergency Management Agency] grants and insurance claims,” says EVP and chief lending officer Silvia Aparicio. “We’ll be providing some funding for that as well.”
But there are more tangible needs to be met first—Texas-style. On Tuesday, as first responders continued working in Rockport and neighbors began cleaning up their properties and assessing the damage, First Community Bank staff volunteers brought their barbecue pit trailer to Rockport and cooked up fajitas and sausage wraps all day long. All told, the bankers fed about 1,000 first responders and neighbors, says Nick Black, a VP and branch manager in downtown Corpus who led the effort. Black and the other volunteer cooks expect to return for two days this weekend and in the future as needed.
The bank also distributed a couple hundred pounds of dog food to help feed pets who were left behind by evacuating neighbors. And Hoskins has provided a bank-owned former convenience store as a command center for out-of-town law enforcement assisting with the recovery efforts.
As debris is cleared away and rebuilding commences in earnest, Hoskins expects First Community Bank to be busier than ever. A local bank is the hub of post-disaster activity as customers get cash and seek loans to repair their properties.
“It’s a great feeling,” says SVP Steve McBrayer. “The overall support from across the state is overwhelming. We even have quite a few of our customers who have pitched in to help. It’s a community effort. It’s in our name. It’s what we do.”
As cleanup efforts continue in the aftermath of the hurricane, ABA is encouraging bankers to make a tax-exempt contribution to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund set up by the Texas Bankers Association and the Independent Bankers Association of Texas. Bankers can also continue to find updates and other resources related to Hurricane Harvey on aba.com.