As safety officials worked around the clock monitoring the Oroville Dam in Northern California from Sunday to Monday, CEO John Cassidy and his team at Sierra Central CU were also in emergency-response mode making sure the credit union’s network was operating properly to serve members.
Headquartered 30 miles south in Yuba City, Sierra Central was only one of several credit unions affected in the region, but it was perhaps the most impacted. Out of 18 branches, five were closed and 140 employees evacuated due to an overflowing Lake Oroville eight miles northeast, the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues reported (CU Weekly Feb. 14).
“This is the third evacuation I’ve been involved in since 1986,” Cassidy told CU Weekly. He had just finished helping some family relatives evacuate. “The second was in 1997.”
On Thursday, all of Sierra Central’s branches fully staffed with regular operating hours, according to the credit union’s website.
Record amounts of rain over the past few weeks have left parts of the community nearly empty as more than 180,000 residents were told to leave, according to news reports. Engineers are preparing for a worst-case scenario and hope that the thousands of gallons of water dumped over the 1968 dam’s emergency spillway doesn’t cause too much erosion on the “dry” side. A large break could mean catastrophic flooding in the three-county region, with a 30-foot wall of water crashing down a hillside into the Feather River and downstream communities. More rain is expected to hit the area this week.
State-chartered credit unions and banks were authorized to close any branches or offices in the affected area by California Department of Business Oversight (DBO) Commissioner Jan Owen on Sunday. On the same day, Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed a state of emergency in Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties.
“We’re making sure all systems are operational in our remaining branches and our main office: online banking, the ATM network, member credits and debits, our redundancy location that we manage, and our offsite back-up as well,” Cassidy said. “I couldn’t be more proud of a group of people rising to this challenge, especially in the middle of a scary situation that could wipe out 60 miles of Highway 70 and all the towns in between. You’re talking about 200,000 to 300,000 people.”
Leaders of Sacramento-based Schools Financial CU, with a branch in Yuba City, are on the alert as well. “We’ve closed one branch in Yuba City,” said CEO Timothy Marriott on Monday. “All employees in that branch have been evacuated. We’re playing things by ear to see if we’re able to open it tomorrow or later this week.”
Schools Financial CU’s Yuba City branch was open Thursday.
The credit union’s leaders have activated its business-continuity team and are meeting several times each day to keep track of news media reports.
“Our members in the area can utilize our ATM, which is still up and running--and we still have our online and mobile banking services available,” Marriott told CU Weekly. “We haven’t received many calls into our call center. Everyone who evacuated is probably dealing with personal issues right now.”
Golden 1 CU has also taken steps regarding its Yuba City branch. The Sacramento-based credit union closed its local branch, although members can still access their accounts online, via mobile app, by phone or visiting another branch.
Golden 1’s Yuba City branch re-opened Wednesday.
“All employees in the evacuation area are safe,” said Erica Taylor, vice president of communications and community relations for Golden 1. “We are assisting them in their time of displacement. We are also encouraging our staff to follow instructions given by designated emergency authorities.”
Golden 1 has also made a $10,000 donation to the Salvation Army Del Oro Division to assist members and the general public evacuated from the affected counties. The donation will assist the Salvation Army in providing food and water to evacuees at emergency shelters in Chico and Grass Valley.
Cassidy said Sierra Central is aggressively communicating through its website, call center, and in-person member service channels to keep members informed on the latest updates. A handful of credit union leaders from Sacramento have reached out offering assistance too. “The credit union world is a tight community,” he said. “We’re receiving a ton of support right now from not only fellow credit unions but business partners as well.”
For the Sierra Central team, “it’s a surreal experience,” Cassidy added. “I’ve been a part of flood task forces during all these crises and it’s unnerving for a lot of people. When you’re told to leave, you panic and get out with your possessions, pets, and anything valuable.” He said it took eight hours for many residents to drive a mere 50 miles out of town Sunday night.
“Hopefully we’ve dodged an event the scale of Hurricane Katrina, if not larger,” he said. “That water would’ve pushed down to the Sacramento region. This could’ve really been ugly. But we’re not through this just yet.”
As of Thursday, the water level at Lake Oroville continued to drop as state officials pressed on with the effort to drain the reservoir in light of a forecast calling for rain through Monday, the Sacramento Bee reported. The lake level fell by nearly 5 feet in the 12-hour period ending at 6 a.m. Thursday. The lake level stands at 869 feet, about 30 feet below its capacity.