It was not immediately apparent when the flood drowned New Orleans that safe deposit boxes would be damaged. But as crews entered bank buildings, it became abundantly clear. Beyond wet currency in vaults, there was a much larger customer issue – some safe deposit boxes were full of water! It was nasty water, too – smelly, brown, black, and sometimes corrosive.
Thousands of customers were affected. Area banks had never imagined this issue. There was no “off-the-shelf” solution for handling boxes covered in water that might be poisonous or infectious. Area banks could not let customers enter damaged offices to retrieve their belongings. Some locations were dangerous even for recovery workers.
Normally, bankers do not know what is in a customer’s safe box. It is simply a repository rented for whatever that person wants to store. In fact, many safe deposit box customers would bristle if a bank asked for – or required – an inventory.
What could be done?
A task force was formed to find a solution for Hibernia’s flooded safe deposit boxes. It hit on an idea to set up a central location where all the boxes could be taken and where customers could open them in a controlled environment – where contamination and water damage could be mitigated and where locksmiths would be available.
They found such a place on Airline Drive (across from Zephyr Stadium in Metairie), in a building which soon became known as the “safe deposit box church.” It actually once had been a church and the name was still over the doorway.
Steve Hebert’s property management crews pulled all the boxes from flooded offices. Some 14,000 were carted to the recovery site, where a team of long-suffering employees worked with customers to open them, sort through wet and smelly contents and help them bag it. It was not a pretty sight.
‘Mother Superior’ of safe deposit boxes
Kelly Shepherd became the “mother superior” of the safe deposit box church. Shepherd was the MOM (market operations manager) for the Greater New Orleans region, a job she had held for 11 of her 15 years at Hibernia. She was responsible for overall operational support. Shepherd felt “shock and horror” about what had happened in the city, and her first concern was to visit the flooded branches.
She had to figure out quickly how to get unprocessed work out, how to get offices re-opened, and how to help customers retrieve their safe deposit boxes. She managed to talk to her retail operations manager, Susan Baum, Tuesday afternoon. They set up visits with property management staff to the afflicted locations.
The destruction and mayhem that greeted them was beyond description. “Water and mud were everywhere. Branches were submerged. No paper transactions survived. No electronic journals survived. ATM deposits were ruined.
“My mind was reeling with all these things. I felt helpless. Just finding staff was impossible.”
Customers want to know
Shepherd took charge of mucking out the offices and getting the safe deposit box church in operation. She knew it was imperative.
Customers, who, in first days were patient and understanding, later became more insistent. They wanted to know when offices would be opened and when they could get to their safe boxes.
The company began an advertising campaign to tell customers where to call and where to go, explaining that some boxes had been damaged.
Helping at the church were John Dendinger and Allison Griffen. Dendinger and Griffen each had been in banking for 23 years. Both began as tellers. Dendinger served as market operations coordinator in Orleans, St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes, and Griffen was market operations manager.
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The ‘Mother Superior’
Kelly Shepherd was market operations manager for the Greater New Orleans area for 11 years and started in audit in 1990. She and her husband, Dean, had been married 10 years and had two daughters, 6 and 4.
On Saturday before the storm, she went to her office in Metairie and sent emails reminding branches of the preparations needed — securing cash and transaction records in vaults, covering equipment with plastic bags, making sure ATMS were full. Then she and her family evacuated first to a hotel in Marshall, TX, then to Columbus, MS. She texted her boss, Susan Baum, and others after the storm, and immediately they began planning how to assess damage and re-open.
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When the church opened, no one was sure how to handle customers as they came in. How would they react? How many would come?
The ‘angels’ worked six days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., sometimes longer. People stood in line to get a look at their boxes. Many were angry and took it out on them, but some were not. They made an interesting study in contrasts. “One couple, early on, asked me to spell my name for their lawsuit,” Griffen wryly recalled. Another screamed, “You let my stuff get wet. Why didn’t you move my box?”
Griffen had a theory about how people behaved. “Lakeview people seemed to be more unfriendly, and St. Bernard people seemed to be more grateful.” Dedinger agreed. “The ones most affected by the storm are the best,” he said. Some customers often tried to offer tips,give hugs, even wanted to buy lunch.
But he recalled a man who had an antique gun collection that filled 10 boxes. He was not a happy camper. His only comment as he walked out, “Wet, John, wet.”Dendinger agreed: “The ones most affected by the storm are the best,” he said. Some customers often tried to offer tips, gave hugs, even wanted to buy lunch.
Another had lost his mother and father in the storm – one died on Baronne Street, the other on Broad Street. He “was so understanding.” He needed papers from their safe deposit box to close his parents’ estate.
However, during the first few days, Dendinger often “got cursed at and screamed at,” he recalled, but shrugged: “If you’re in banking, you learn that it’s not you they are mad at; it’s the bank.”
Griffen remembered another customer who came in just before closing one Friday, about 4:30 p.m., and began looking through her large box. She would not accept help: “You, little girl, can go over there,” the customer pointed emphatically. She did not finish until 8 p.m. Griffen waited patiently, scrapping her plans for the evening.
Crying along with them
It is odd how people react. Another woman told Griffen she might get emotional. Sure enough, she started sobbing as she went through her box, and so did Griffen. “I cry right along with all of them.”
Another client, dressed in white shorts as she removed wet photo negatives and jewelry, started yelling at Griffen when muddy water splashed on her clothes.
Some customers wanted to keep the rusted boxes and keys. Shepherd said the bank would be glad to give them up. After all, what good were they?
Another couple opened a relative’s box, looking for a rosary. Instead, they were surprised to find some rings in a zip-lock bag. They forgot about the rosary.
Some unusual items
Abandoned boxes were opened by the bank. An unusual assortment of items were discovered. In one, there was a Purple Heart, with no identification. Griffen helped open another and 30 loose teeth fell out.
During another dental encounter, a mother wanted to retrieve her son’s baby teeth, but when the contents were sorted, there were only five, and she was sure there had been six. Griffen dutifully checked under the table and in the trash, but with no luck. She asked about the baby. How old was he? “Twenty-six,” came back the reply.
Another customer was sure she had an emerald in her box, but it was nowhere to be found. Griffen dug through a trash container in which they emptied floodwater from the boxes. Sure enough, at the bottom of the muck yuck, she found the gem.
Whose box was it?
Sometimes the question was simply whose box was it? All the rental records were on paper, kept in the flooded branches in notebooks, file boxes or cabinets. Shepherd and others had retrieved them, a chore that entailed “a lot of dirty work,” because many were wet or damaged. The bankers did their best to dry them out. Laura McLaughlin, another MOM, ironed over 1,000 pieces of paper. Even then, some were illegible and the renter’s identity couldn’t always be determined.
“Customers were frantic. They needed to get into their boxes. Some were irate,” noted Royce Matheny, manager of the New Orleans Main Office. First, only a few came in, but then many more, as Hibernia’s notices reached them. Some were reserved, resigned to the situation. Others were upset, impatient and angry.
Shepherd and her people created a flexible appointment system, trying to spend as much time with customers as they wanted or needed. Even so, it was often unpredictable how much time someone might need. “Some took two minutes, some two hours,” she said. It depended on their emotional state, the complexity of the records or items, the condition of the box and how hard it was to open.
Locksmiths first opened boxes by drilling the locks that were corroded shut. Eventually, they discovered it was faster just to hammer the hinges off. The boxes weren’t ever going to be used again.
Matheny, aware of all the grimy work Shepherd and her colleagues shouldered, thought they were “our most valuable players.”