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Disaster Recovery in Puerto Rico: Establishing Contact and Sending Aid

BCU works to provide cash and information for its 37 employees and 30,000 members in Puerto Rico as the island faces down a crisis after Hurricane Maria.

October 24, 2017

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, as a Category 4 hurricane. In the next three weeks, the storm's aftermath became a major humanitarian crisis — even in late October, most of the island remains without electricity, while food, water and fuel supplies have returned to near normal levels in metropolitan areas.

The island is home to nine credit unions, which collectively count more than 84,000 members and hold north of $760 million in assets. Because access to cash is critical to purchase goods and services, credit unions on the island — both those headquartered on the island and not — have found ways to provide funds to those in need while the electrical grid operates at less than 100%.

For their part, individual credit union employees have stepped up to maintain operations as best they can — this in addition to physically rebuilding their communities and lives.

In this Q&A, Jill Sammons, the credit union’s assistant vice president of communications and brand strategy, discusses life for members and employees on the island, overcoming challenges to communicate in the days after Maria, and the cooperative's efforts to support its community.

What are the state of things? Do you have any updates?

Jill Sammons: The most critical thing for us immediately after the storm was to ensure every one of our employees was accounted for and safe. That was our first priority.

A few of them have suffered some substantial losses, primarily with their homes. They are in the same situation as many island residents.

There is continued difficulty in the ability to communicate. Cell access is challenging. Telephone lines remain down. Power lines are down as well. The most recent update we’ve received implies that metro areas now have near-normal access to water, gasoline, and supplies.

Rural areas are facing much greater challenges.

Thankfully, most of our branch locations are located on company partner (SEG) campuses, where we have been able to establish branch connectivity using their generator power. At this time, all but one of our branches are now open and servicing members, and six of our ATMs are now operable.

How long did it take you to account for your employees?

JS: About a week. It took approximately 48 hours to make initial contact with one of our employees on the island.

The attitude of our staff on the island is unbelievably positive given what they are going through. They are demonstrating an extraordinary commitment — not only to the island and their fellow neighbors, but to us, their employer, and our members. Our general manager and assistant vice president of operations on the island is doing an exceptional job. He is finding fuel and taking employees around the island to do well-being checks on their residences. He has been working around the clock to do what he can to support our employees and get our operations back up and running.


BCU’s Product and Program Recap for Members

To make life just a bit easier for members on the island, BCU immediately began offering assistance  through various products and relief programs including:

  • Deferred payment on all existing loans for 90 days.
  • Waived all fees through Oct. 31, 2017. ATM fees waived through Nov. 30, 2017.
  • Increased credit card limits.
  • Increased overdraft limits.
  • Offered low-cost relief funds.

BCU is headquartered far from the island, which makes it difficult to know what is happening and at what scale. How did you overcome that?

JS: Begin with a plan. Be flexible and organized.

We identified early that we needed a single point of contact. We wanted to minimize confusion and not complicate the situation by having multiple employees on the island try to make contact with us stateside. Before the hurricane reached the island we asked our staff to make every effort to check in with our general manager as soon as they could following the storm, and he would contact our executive vice president, Tom Moore, at headquarters. In the days and weeks following the storm, BCU’s leadership team has met daily to provide updates and ensure the accuracy and consistency of all information.


The most critical thing for us immediately after the storm was to ensure every one of our employees was accounted for and safe. That was our first priority. - Jill Sammons, AVP Communications & Brand Strategy, BCU 

What relief efforts has BCU aided, and what did you send?

JS: We identified the needs we could best support were tools to improve communication, fuel, and access to cash. We have been laser-focused on restoring operations to enable members to access cash so they can make the purchases they need as soon as inventory became available. A few of our colleagues on the island were able to secure fuel for fellow employees when it was most scarce, and with the help of our SEGs and business partners, we were able to deliver satellite phones and other services to support communication. Along the way, we’ve been in constant contact to understand the needs of our employees and their families. At press time, 19 home generators were in transit to BCU employees who don’t have power.

We immediately activated a process with our corporate partners on the island who are equally as concerned for their own employees to make low-cost relief loans available quickly, with minimal effort.

What else is the credit union doing?

JS: We have delivered more than 100,000 email and direct mail messages to members expressing our concern for their well-being and directing them to a dedicated disaster help page on our website: www.bcu.org/disasterhelp. Additionally, we’ve used Facebook, made radio announcements on the island, and distributed paper flyers to share information about how we can help. In recent days we’ve seen email open rates and web page visits reach near normal averages, indicating more and more members are coming back online.

Our online resources denote which of our locations are up and operable, where we have working ATMs, and a link to a third-party site that shows which retailers are able to accept credit or debit — and which of those will provide cash back. We maintain that information in real-time.


BCU Employee Well Being

BCU also took an active role in providing relief for its employees on the island. Says Sammons:

“While we take so many of the basic comforts for granted, it’s hard to imagine what everyone on the island is experiencing. Our employees are such an integral part of the BCU family. We want them to feel our support enveloping them as they work to put their lives back together. To that end, BCU was able to provide cash grants, no disruption in pay or paid time off, and individualized support to address personal hardships. Our credit union has nearly 600 employees, with the heart of ten times that many. It’s truly inspiring to see BCU’s “We’ve Got Your Back” spirit lived out in support for each other and our members. 100% of the contributions made to the employee relief fund will be granted to BCU employees on the island. The fund currently sits at more than $30,000.”

For those with telephone connectivity, we have a dedicated toll-free line they can call for assistance.

Despite our efforts to communicate through print and digital channels, our single best method of communication has been our employees and members sharing information by word-of-mouth. Our staff is on-site answering questions for members, supporting their needs, and assisting with far more than basic transactions.

Have mainland employees contributed to the relief efforts?

JS: Our credit union has nearly 600 employees, with the heart of 10 times that many. Even before the storm hit, ideas about recovery efforts were underway. It’s truly inspiring to see BCU’s “We’ve Got Your Back” spirit lived out in support for each other and our members. Fellow colleagues stateside, along with a few business partners are donating to a relief fund with 100% of the contributions being granted to BCU employees on the island. In addition to direct donations, employees have organized other fundraising activities to center our hearts and minds on those that have been impacted by this unimaginable event.

How much have you raised?

JS: We’re thrilled about the assistance we’ll provide to our employees as the fund now exceeds $30,000.





Originally published in CreditUnions.com on October 23, 2017
By Erik Payne
This interview has been edited and condensed.