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Winter Journal

Volume 31, Issue 4

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The approaching new millenium has industries worldwide focused on preparation for every possible adverse scenario. While such attention is necessary, one credit union has found making ready for events that recur more frequently than every thousand years deserve the same vigilance.

Ingalls Employees Credit Union, based in Pascagoula, Mississippi, had an opportunity to put their Disaster Recovery Plan to the test when Hurricane Georges raked the Mississippi Gulf Coast on September 27.

IECU's Disaster Recovery Plan was activated days before the storm hit. Emergency phone number listings and employee locations were made available to staff members, to make communication after the storm possible. While the storm was still churning in the Gulf of Mexico, employees covered computers, desks, equipment and files. At this pivotal point, the level preparation did not seem necessary because this "very predictable" storm, according to weather forecasters, was expected to hit New Orleans.

Veteran CEO, W.T. "Pete" Avara, Jr., who remembers shoveling mud from his facilities after Hurricane Camille in 1969, wanted to take no chances when it came to safeguarding the property and records of IECU. All data was backed up and hard copies of critical information, such as trial balance reports, were printed.

On Saturday, September 26, the hurricane was drawing closer and most of the staff had left to take care of personal property. The effects of the storm were now becoming evident while Data Processing Manager, Chris Crabtree, remained to back up the entire system with up-to-the-minute data. Hurricane Georges was coming, yet still headed for New Orleans, 118 miles away. With all precautions taken, employees could only wait to see how fully the Disaster Recovery Plan would need implemented upon their return.

During the next 24 hours weather forecasters continued changing the location that the eye of the storm would hit. With each update, it became increasingly clear that IECU branches would be in the most dangerous area of all-- the Northeast Quadrant which produces the fiercest winds and often spawns deadly tornadoes. Just after daylight on Monday, September 28, President & CEO, Pete Avara, received a call from the Ingalls Shipbuilding Fire Department notifying him that the Central Branch Office had sustained damage. With winds still measuring approximately 85 miles per hour, Avara accompanied by an IECU Board member and a Pascagoula City Council member went to assess the damage.

The Central Branch roof had been torn off exposing the mainframe computer to hours of damaging wind and pouring rain-- virtually wiping out IECU's computer network. Immediately, calls were made to Sungard Recovery Services and the Disaster Recovery Plan was in full force. Before the winds ceased, 18-wheel trucks were enroute with the equipment needed to rebuild their computer infrastructure.

Executive Vice President, Laurin F. Avara, recalls, "At that time, I was very much concerned with the destruction of our data processing capabilities. However, I was equally concerned that we focus on the operations side, knowing from past hurricanes, such as Camille and Elena, that our members would need access to cash to take care of critical priorities."

Employees who still had phone or cellular service began calling in, while others received instructions to report to work on Wednesday via battery-operated radios. IECU's Moss Point facility, with its electric power restored, became the hub of activity. Posting all transactions by hand was a tedious task, but grateful members were appreciative that IECU had planned for the worst and was able to deliver service under these difficult circumstances.

Laurin Avara, who shoveled debris along side his father, Pete Avara, after Hurricane Camille, recounts, "In 1969, it was much easier to go back to manual transactions. A lot of member account information was still 'pen and ink' and nearly all our staff was familiar with processing transactions and balancing by hand. Today, IECU depends on a complex information system network that manages member account information. Had it not been for Disaster Recovery planning and training, our staff would not have performed as well as they did." 

While branches were opening and members were receiving cash or loans for immediate necessities, Sungard Recovery Services was putting together IECU's mobile data center in a trailer that had just arrived from Atlanta with equipment and machinery that had come from Dallas. Data Processing personnel worked late into the night to get things up and running. One critical factor in IECU's race against the clock was that nearly every other financial institution on the Coast was back to operating status quo, since they had received little or no damage. However, IECU's proximity to its sponsor, Ingalls Shipbuilding, put the Central Branch Office and the computer infrastructure it housed, directly in the hurricance's destructive path.

According to the Executive Vice President, "With the level of competition what it is, our ability to get back on line was key to our very survival. If we didn't perform under these circumstances, we could have lost accounts or the confidence of our members whose accounts we maintain. We were very much aware of our members' need to have access to their money-- even for something as basic as food. We knew that they understood our predicament, but that only goes so far."

To compound an already difficult situation, Ingalls Shipbuilding released checks to more than 10,000 employees during a three-hour period. (Typically, because of the large number of employees, Ingalls Shipbuilding pays its staff on two separate days.) "Our personnel not only had an unprecedented payday," commented Pete Avara, "but we had to process the most basic transactions without computers. Everything was done by hand and later entered when the computers came on line. It was a difficult day, but our employees' performance was exemplary."

Fortunately, the data that had been so meticulously saved was able to be used to reconstruct IECU's records. Processing was already taking place on Wednesday, September 30. Amazingly, all month-end and quarter-end processing was completed by the afternoon of October 1. On Friday, October 2, the computer network was connected to the remaining four branches.

Like receding flood waters, the level of urgency at IECU diminished with each passing day as more services were restored. On Monday, October 5, just one week after the storm, all remaining branches were opened.

Crabtree offered this assessment to IECU's successful Disaster Recovery, "We had a plan. It was detailed and had been tested. However, the information on paper cannot replace the dedication and knowledge of your staff. Our personnel knew what they were supposed to do and they did it. More than one employee put the greater need of our 20,000 members ahead of their personal need to take care of destroyed or damaged property." 

He continued, "They were tired, but everyone pitched in. We put everything in order to see what had to be done then prioritized the things that had to be done first. Knowing what the initial list looked like, it's hard to believe that everything came off as well as it did and that we finished as quickly."

Laurin Avara added, "A crisis such as this provides an opportunity to see leadership at its best. Everyone performed well-- but some individuals shined."  What does the future hold for the 59 year-old credit union that was briefly crippled by the unkind Georges? In the midst of the recovery, IECU leaders put together a visionary plan to rebuild the Central Branch office that would provide a better level of service to its members.

Phase One of that plan is already complete. The old Central Branch already houses a newly remodeled, more efficient Data Processing Center with a brand new computer system that is twice as fast as the one that was destroyed.

In January, the totally reconfigured building will re-open to its members. "Even storm clouds have silver linings," stated Laurin Avara. "Hurricane Georges forced us to make some changes that were not scheduled for quite some time. However, because our Disaster Recovery Plan was so well implemented, we were able to look to the needs of the future rather than being consumed with the process of recovery."

Perhaps this statement by Chris Crabtree sums IECU's Disaster recovery best, "While I would not want to repeat what we have recently been through, it is very satisfying to know that our disaster recovery plan has successfully passed an extremely rigorous test. Our members can know that whether we face a destructive storm or a new millenium, Ingalls Employees Credit Union is ready. "

Kathy Scarbrough is Director of Marketing at Ingalls Employees Credit Union.