Robert Duhon dealt in money by the ton. He counted deposits by the millions and handled cash by the pallet. He knew without a second thought that a $1,000-bag of quarters weighed 49.98 pounds. Duhon, 57, was manager of Hibernia’s southeast regional central money vault. A company man through and through, he’d worked at the bank for 35 years, married a coworker 27 years ago and had a daughter who worked in the customer service area.
“I’m a hands-on person. I take pride in what I do for the corporation,” he said simply. His job – with a pre-storm staff of 55 – was to keep Hibernia’s bank offices stocked with cash and coin and to handle huge deposits that came in by armored car from commercial sources.
After a two-year stint as an U.S. Army corporal in Korea in 1972, Duhon joined Hibernia as a swing teller and management trainee. He stayed in retail banking for eight years, then moved to operations and had worked with huge quantities of money ever since.
It was not unusual for Duhon to handle $10 million, $20 million, even $50 million per day. Normally the central money vault in the basement of the venerable Hibernia headquarters held about $20 million. Across the whole company, he and the other central money vault managers cared for an average of more than $200 million all the time.
So, Duhon was accustomed to money. He also was accustomed to storms, and, over the years, he had honed a plan to make adequate funds available during and after them. “He is a consummate professional,” noted Donald Barry, his boss. “He knows the Fed’s workings inside and out, and he knows how to make things happen.”
A birthday party disrupted
As Katrina boiled northward, Duhon and his wife, Susan, were getting ready to throw a big 4th birthday party for their granddaughter. It was set for Saturday, but the party never happened.
Duhon watched the worsening weather and decided to evacuate, his five-car caravan heading to Lake Charles. With the Duhons were various family members, including a daughter, 27, son, 23, and 77-year-old mother. “I’m like a pied piper. If I speak, the children follow … I bought six sets of walkie-talkies, and we never got separated.”
Most of his vault staff lived on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. He had instructed that all the clocks on the money vault locks be set “not to open until Monday.”
He and other family lived in St. Bernard Parish. As a 16-year-old, he had spent a year helping rebuild his parents’ house after hurricane Betsy in 1965. Although he had a lot of respect for storms, he felt this one would be a “typical 1-2-3 comeback.” He had packed enough clothes for three days.
Shifting cash to Baton Rouge
He estimated he would not need much cash in New Orleans for a few days. Customers would be gone. ATMs would be out of service when electricity failed, bank offices would be closed. He expected to go to Baton Rouge Tuesday and open a temporary cash vault at the Main Office there for whatever branches might need.
The vaults also had to work closely with Alan Ganucheau, Hibernia’s treasurer, to make sure, as Barry explained, “that we were keeping them aware of what we were doing with the monies.”“Bobby redirected a lot of work to Baton Rouge,” Barry recalled. “He was on the phone with the Federal Reserve working with those folks to make sure we had access to cash and to get things that we needed. We worked with the New Orleans Fed as long as we could. Then we went out and started getting money from Little Rock, Memphis and Houston, any place that we could get what we needed as quickly as we could.”
Duhon also was tied at the hip to retail banking and to ATM replenishment teams.
The central money vault managers built the company’s cash stockpile to a high point of $307 million, and because of their connections, Duhon and the others never had trouble getting the money they needed, even for the heavy influx into Texas branches as evacuees swarmed there.
A pile of cash
However, stockpiling that much money was “… not something you like to do or want to do,” Barry conceded, “but the flip side of having to tell people you don’t have money was simply not acceptable.”
Availability of cash for the public in the storm-torn Gulf states was a worry of the Federal Reserve System, Barry recalled. “I spoke with several officials with the Fed in Atlanta who were concerned about whether we had enough. At one point, someone had called his congressman saying he was trying to get money from Hibernia in Baton Rouge and we wouldn’t give him any.
“The Fed asked if the bank was out of money. I told them certainly not, that we had put into place a policy of providing at least $300 (to each customer).”
Having enough money in central vaults was one thing, but getting it to branch offices was another. Many armored car services were sidelined. Hibernia had contracts with several firms, but one of them “just bailed out,” and the trucks of another got flooded.
Eventually, branch managers and operations supervisors drove to spur-of-the-moment delivery points and picked up large quantities of cash, not a procedure that would have passed muster in ordinary times. “ Do what you have to do … that was the approach,” Barry said.
Duhon had other issues – one was to get enough of his vault staff to Baton Rouge to count and sort all of the cash and coin. He had a crew of five, and “the ones who showed up there did not surprise me. Some others just said ‘no,’ and some had legitimate reasons,” Duhon recalled. He set up a van service to pick up his people and take them back and forth, an arrangement that lasted three months. In first days, the basement vault in New Orleans was not a great concern because Duhon did not need the cash stored there. Attention shifted back to the vault, as it became known that it had flooded.
The flooded vault
Duhon knew that most money vaults were not watertight even if they were burglar-proof. He knew the money inside probably was wet and that equipment in the vault’s large work area probably was damaged. The areas designated for safe deposit boxes and trust assets also probably were affected. Even more worrisome was the condition of the big 24-ton vault door. Made of steel in the 1920s with huge, carefully machined locking pins and precision clockwork parts, it was highly susceptible to rust. Workers had reported an ugly red line across the door, marking the high-water mark. It was a sad state for the old vault, which often drew the interest of visitors during tours of the bank, itself on the National Register of Historic Places.
Rusting mass of metal
“It took 30 minutes to get the combination to work. I used channel locks to rotate the dial … Eventually, I was able to get the tumblers to drop. Then I was able to turn the wheel to disengage the pins.” It took about an hour and a half.When Duhon went into the basement with armed guards two weeks after the storm, he found a rusting mass of metal, floors covered in foul black water and cloying, fetid air. He was not sure he could even open the vault.
“I opened it carefully. I wanted the water to escape slowly. I didn’t want a tidal surge. The water inside was the same height as outside – 4½ feet.”
On that first visit, Duhon simply opened the door, drained the vault, checked the contents – the safe deposit boxes and the inner money vault behind a second, smaller door – and closed it, spraying the doors liberally with lubricant. About half of the money inside appeared to be wet, some of it covered in brown slime.
Then Duhon walked to a medical aid station a few blocks away and got shots to protect himself from hepatitis and tetanus.
Wet and heavy
A lot of the money was packaged in plastic bags, but it still was wet. Duhon’s staff put those bags inside other bags and then bagged them again.About two weeks later, he returned to open the vault again and deal with the contents. His team removed the contaminated money and shipped it to the Fed. “We did the cash first. It was wet and heavy. We were not worried yet about moving the coin. It would have been hard to walk it out.”
Next, they tackled, teller “buses” – the rolling safes used in the money vault. Workers used crowbars to open them to get the loose, wet money inside and put it into bags.
“That stuff was nasty, because those buses held water.”
The Fed was less accommodating this time. They did not want loose wet money. “They refused about 50% of it,” Duhon recalled. “They told us we had to break it down by denomination,” an unpleasant task, to say the least.
Wet currency continued to be a headache as commercial customers mucked out their businesses and brought in deposits. Duhon recalled one $250,000 deposit from Jazzland, the theme park that wallowed in water for weeks. “It reeked.” In addition, Entergy, the electric utility, brought in 15 large bags of coin that required separation. Much of it was corroded into clumps.
In fact, recovering coin was harder than currency. Months after all the cash had been dealt with, bags of encrusted coin remained, waiting to be cleaned, counted and returned to the Fed.
Then came Rita
No sooner did Duhon begin to breathe a little easier than along came hurricane Rita. “I worried that the whole vault infrastructure would be gone,” Duhon reflected. “There was more going on in my mind for the second storm than the first.” He worried that, if Rita hit Houston as Katrina had done New Orleans, “… the bank couldn’t survive.” As it turned out, of course, the storm – severe as it was – hit elsewhere.
Safe deposit boxes
A big issue was uncovered at the basement vault and at flooded branches. Some safe deposit boxes had been submerged. Those that were above the high-water mark generally were unaffected, but below that level, they’d been swimming in mucky water. Helping customers remove their contents would be a major chore for many months.
As he looked back, Duhon was grateful for his people – Scott Rink, a cash vault supervisor; Shannon Dinot, who worked for Rink; Bill Logan, who moved his vault and cash operation to Baton Rouge; and Paul Lungaro, his counterpart in Lake Charles who ran the Southwest Regional Cash Vault.
End of an era
He was disappointed that some retail bank areas called for cash when it seemed obvious the offices were getting set up faster than staff could be found. He did not think they needed cash yet. He also was frustrated about “not knowing what was going on in other areas and how it might affect his.” Communications were poor, and “things were changing too fast.”
Overall, he felt a sense both of accomplishment and of loss. The cash vaults had provided all of the raw material of banking that was needed to see Hibernia through the crisis, thanks to the efforts of the money team.
On the other hand, he had to say goodbye to the great old
basement vault and its 24-ton vault door. “I’ve been looking after it every day — day after day — since 1985.”
Duhon even knew how much effort it took to swing the big door … 120 foot-pounds to start it, 78 foot-pounds to keep it moving. “I opened it myself, every day, until Aug. 26 … and then just two more times,” he said. The last time he pulled it open was Sept. 11, 2005.
“It was a symbol of Hibernia … a symbol of safety and security.”