Residents of Calhoun and Liberty Counties, Fla. are dealing firsthand with the devastation brought by Hurricane Michael in early October, as the category 4 storm at one point completely covered the area. Calhoun Liberty Employees CU, Blountstown, Fla. is the only credit union, and one of five other financial institutions with a presence in the area.
And after Hurricane Michael hit the area with 140 MPH winds, it was the only financial institution open and one of the few businesses with generator power at all. The credit unions operated on generator power from Oct 12 to 26 until full utility power was restored, with most of our employees without utility power for over 20 days
“We like to say we have more pine trees than people in this area, and after the storm hit us Wednesday, [Oct. 10], most of us has to cut our way out of our driveways just to get out,” said Thomas Flowers, president/CEO of Calhoun Liberty Employees CU. “We spent a few days trying to locate everyone, making sure they were OK, then it was time to get to work.”
Only months before, the credit union’s board had approved the installation of backup generators for the credit union. As all financial institutions, grocery stores and gas stations were without power after the storm, the Calhoun Liberty Employees CU staff mobilized quickly to ensure people could access funds and other services.
“Our busiest ATM days are usually Fridays, where we see maybe around 50 or 60 transactions,” Flowers said. “We saw more than 1,100 right after the storm, and we’ve seen more than 5,700 in the month of October, as people from five counties came to our ATM, which never went down. At certain points we had 40 people waiting in line for our walk-up ATM. We had the National Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife and local law enforcement helping manage traffic.”
The rush didn’t dissipate as the community gradually started to get power, as phone service remained down. The grocery store eventually opened, and five days later the gas station, but they could only make cash transactions, meaning all roads led to Calhoun Liberty Employees CU.
“The grocery store opened, but could only take cash, so they told people to come to the credit union,” Flowers said, adding than less than half of ATM transactions came from members.
Flowers added that he and his staff kept one thing in mind during recovery: serving members. Since the storm has passed, Flowers said they’ve opened new accounts and welcomed new members every day. They even filed their call report with NCUA on time, and noted credit state regulators as being very helpful during recovery.
“I’m proud we were able to serve our membership in a time they needed us the most, and help the non-members as well. We helped them get their money and make deposits when there was no other option,” he said. “At times it felt like we were serving as social workers. People would come in and burst into tears, they lost so much. And our employees were there the whole time, coming to work even as they’re dealing with their own disaster recovery at home.”
Just before the storm, Calhoun Liberty Employees CU had received an order of T-shirts, with the credit union’s logo and the phrase “It’s a Cooperative Thing” on the shirt. Staff wore the shirts as a badge of honor throughout the recovery, differentiating themselves for individuals coming by the credit union and making sure the cooperative spirit was always top of mind.
“There’s still lots of damage, still blue tarps on our roof and the sound of chainsaws all day, it’s been less than a month since the storm hit, but we’re trying to do what we can each day,” he said. “Cooperation is ingrained into who we are, it’s what brought us to the credit union, and it’s what kept us going as we’re doing everything we can for our community. Our mindset is that we’re prepared to serve our community out of a cigar box if needed. I’m very proud we’ve been able to accomplish in this community as a small credit union.”