Hawaii credit union takes the lead in disaster response
‘The entire community put its arms around this island.’
Leah Michaels was offering a helping hand in the community after a flood inundated the Hawaiian island of Kauai in April. The chief communication officer at Kauai Government Employees Federal Credit Union (KGEFCU) was wearing a credit union shirt.
Suddenly a woman wearing a neck brace stopped her pickup truck on the street, hopped out, and wrapped Michaels in a fierce hug as she began crying.
The woman recognized “KGEFCU” as the same letters written on the gas can used to fill the boat that carried her to medical care. And she couldn’t wait any longer to say “thank you” to KGEFCU for helping people on Kauai’s north shore when it was underwater.
With little warning, a rainy weekend had turned into a deluge that washed out the main road connecting Kauai communities, took down power and communications, and flooded homes. In Hanalei, four feet of water fell in 24 hours.
CEO Monica Belz used her background in coordinating disaster response to identify supplies the $115 million asset credit union could gather and deliver to people in need. Gasoline to refuel boats and jet skis used in water rescues was critical.
The credit union’s staff mobilized from its Lihue office to gather and deliver filled gas cans and other supplies in personal trucks.
Armed with a “dry bag” filled with electronic devices and forms, Belz used boats and jet skis, and then hiked to where people needed help in areas cut off by the flood.
KGEFCU staff set up a “remote intake location” to add new members and process loan applications at a local community center. If members needed new plastic cards, staff returned the next day to deliver them.
To address financial needs, KGEFCU offered no interest on credit card purchases for six months and created a disaster recovery loan of up to $15,000 at 5% interest for most credit tiers, with payments deferred for five months.
KGEFCU added dozens of new members who needed immediate disaster relief loans, while serving current members and staying focused on community needs.
“Every day the needs changed,” Belz says. “It started with life and death and rescues, and then it went to power banks to establish communication.”
Digital plays a role
KGEFCU’s social media channels of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter played a critical role in sharing requests for rescue as well as financial needs.
“People were utilizing that to find people, help them, or bring them supplies,” says Media Specialist Bonnie Hailer.
Along the way, KGEFCU identified “digital bottlenecks” that it is now working to erase.
“If our new digital journey had been written when we had the flood, we could have received 10 times the loan applications and new members,” Belz says.
Mold remains the biggest threat to Kauai residents while they wait for insurance adjusters to determine payments that will fund rebuilding.
Belz stresses that KGEFCU’s disaster response was not a marketing strategy, yet it boosted name recognition.
“Because we were some of the first people out there offering help from day one, doing anything we could, people remember us,” Belz says.
It also made the credit union part of a broader effort of “people helping people” that is aiding Kauai’s recovery, she adds.
“The entire community put its arms around this island.”
►Stay tuned for more disaster recovery coverage from CUNA News and the July issue of Credit Union Magazine