WASHINGTON—One man asks why don't ATM cards work. A woman lost her credit cards, checkbook and all forms of identification in Hurricane Katrina. Another caller asks that Navy SEALs be sent to fetch bodies from submerged neighborhoods.
The phone calls are coming to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the federal agency charged with insuring bank deposits. Since Tuesday, agency volunteers in the nation's capital and in Dallas have manned the FDIC's toll-free hot line (1-877-ASKFDIC) 24 hours a day.
Beyond bringing devastation to homes and livelihoods, Katrina ruptured the nervous system of everyday life. The hundreds of calls coming into the FDIC's hot line reflect that.
"They don't know if the funds they had coming in were there. They don't know whether their mortgage payment has been paid. They don't know if their car loan can be extended another month. Those are the kinds of calls we are getting," said Mauricio Lainez, a call-center supervisor in Washington. "Each one of them touches you because no matter what it is, these people sound distraught on the other end of the line."
If FDIC involvement in disaster relief seems odd, consider that after surviving the wind, rain, floods and rescue, the next step in the hierarchy of needs is picking up the pieces. And that begins with the most basic.
Where do credit card statements get sent? The U.S. Postal Service advises Katrina victims to go to its Web site (www.usps.gov) and file forwarding addresses if they've fled to fixed addresses. They also can do that by calling 1-800-ASK-USPS. For the elderly needing their Social Security checks, the Web site also lists which post offices are holding checks that can't be delivered.
What happens to automatic deductions from bank accounts? Are paychecks still being electronically deposited? Can cars be repossessed if loans become delinquent? What if the car is now gone?
These are some of the questions that FDIC volunteers are fielding around the clock. Administrators and lawyers are now telephone operators, and they act as referral agency and amateur psychologists.
"We're all pulling for you here in the East. Good luck, OK," said Jerilyn Rogin, an FDIC attorney who advised a man in Lafayette, La., about ATM fees being waived.
Late Friday night, Deborah Clayton took a frantic call from the daughter of a Katrina victim who had just arrived in Texas.
"A young lady's mother was having a fit because she had over $300,000 in different accounts. ... She assumed that because the bank was gone her money was gone," said Clayton. "I had to reassure her that the money is still there. The bank was just the building. She was elderly and didn't understand that. She wanted to know her money is safe."
Banks are required to have information backed up electronically, and most have third-party providers that store information off-site to ensure bank records aren't lost in a disaster, said Mitchell Glassman, director of the FDIC division that takes over troubled banks.
"The big issue now is communication," said Glassman, adding that by the weekend, about 80 percent of the roughly 240 FDIC-regulated banks in the Katrina-affected area had been reached by regulators. Most were open for business in some fashion.
The FDIC Web site (www.fdic.gov) has a Hurricane Katrina link that provides consumers with a lengthy list of all banks in the Katrina-affected areas and information on which banks are open, as well as the status of their branch offices.
"What the trends are telling us is the banks were very resilient. ... Frankly, they are probably way ahead of other businesses for what you call business continuity," said Glassman.
Few federally regulated banks in Louisiana appear able to post information to their Web sites. One that did was First Bank and Trust in New Orleans.
"During this emergency, please use your ATM cards at any ANY ATM machine and we will pay all charges," the Web site advises.
The bank's executive vice president, Dana Hansel, said that the Federal Reserve has been rushing in cash to ensure ATMs actually have money for Katrina victims trying to access their accounts. Everyone is working around the clock to get the bank up and running.
"Our officers are working from home. Customers can contact us," she said, adding a personal message of hope for anyone willing to listen. "We will be back. You can quote me on that!"
For status of banks in affected areas, listed by city and state: http://www.fdic.gov/news/katrina/KatrinaStatus.pdf
For status of banks in affected areas, listed in alphabetical order: http://www.fdic.gov/news/katrina/KatrinaStatusAlpha.pdf
For information about receiving Social Security checks: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/emergency/
For information on Katrina-related U.S. Postal Service issues: http://www.usps.com/communications/news/serviceupdates.htm
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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