Disaster Recovery and Lessons Learned

By Zoimé Álvarez Rubio

Catastrophic. Unimaginable. Those would be the words anyone living in Puerto Rico would use to best describe the situation after Hurricane Maria hit the island, and how it probably will continue to be for months to come.

The immediate damage included the complete devastation of the island’s power grid, which left all 3.4 million residents without electricity; destruction of 95 percent of communication networks; countless floods and landslides, which left half of the island inaccessible; families without rooftops over their heads; and no access to clean water, food, or medical supplies. Not a single industry was left untouched by Maria, and the banking industry was no exception, particularly due to a lack of access to basic services such as power, communications and internet connectivity. Nonetheless, the industry promptly reacted and put in place its plan to help and relieve not only its employees, but also the communities that our banks serve.

The urgent need for cash was one of the biggest problems. In a world where debit and credit cards have become the primary methods of payment, imagine the desperation of millions of citizens who had to depend solely on cash to cover basic necessities such as food and gas. As the banks started opening for business, the lines were made up of hundreds of clients. The day after Maria, we had zero branches open.

By day four, only 23 percent were open, but by Oct. 20, that number had jumped to 70 percent. As of Nov. 30, 86 percent were open.

From day one, our banks’ staff worked tirelessly and determinedly to reestablish all banking services to clients around the Island, and they continue to do so to this day. The Puerto Rico Bankers Association actively took part in daily meetings at the Government’s Emergency Management Center, alongside other agencies that are key to the island’s restoration. PRBA also joined forces with the Mortgage Bankers Association and the Builders Association of Puerto Rico to request waivers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development that would facilitate community recovery.

Puerto Rico’s banking industry recovery efforts were also aimed at offering its clients alternatives that would momentarily aid them in times of financial constraint. For example, 90-day payment forbearances were made available to all clients for auto loans and leases, credit cards, mortgage loans and personal loans. Charity initiatives such as monetary donations and fund-collecting, as well as community revitalization efforts, are only a few of the contributions and activities that each of our banks have carried out to lend a helping hand.

ABA, the alliance of state bankers associations and banks across the country stood by us, not only by sending contributions, but by constantly communicating with us to find out what our needs were and offering assistance in any way they could. For this, we will always be grateful.

There are many lessons learned, such as creating an aggressive protocol to increase the amount of storage space for diesel and its distribution to the banks’ branches; creating a proactive emergency plan to ensure employees’ access to their work centers, including transportation and satellite phones for executives; and considering alternative communications protocols for internet access via satellite.

There is still much work to do before we reach an optimal level of recovery. But in the midst of uncertainty, one thing’s for sure: the commitment of our banks to the community and the fearless, unbreakable spirit of the people of Puerto Rico will make this road easier to travel.

Zoimé Álvarez Rubio is executive vice president of the Puerto Rico Bankers Association.