19. Loans, loans, loans

A few days after the first hurricane, Paul Bonitatibus, head of retail banking,  and his managers decided the bank needed to defer loan payments for consumers and small businesses in the storm-ravaged areas.  As early as Thursday, Sept. 1, in a news release, the company announced that “… Hibernia is finalizing specific plans for deferring payments.”  A release the next day offered specifics.

The bank would defer payments on consumer loans and lines of credit until January 2006 for borrowers in seven Louisiana and Mississippi zip codes.  This also would apply to small business loans and lines of credit up to $1 million, and, if there were other circumstances, they would be handled on a case-by-case basis.  The release also said:

  • Automatic deductions from checking accounts for the loans would be suspended.
  • Mortgage customers would have three months of deferrals.
  • The bank would grant forbearance up to 18 months to repay suspended payments.
  • None of this would hurt their credit ratings.
PAUL BONITATIBUS: Payment delay needed / Photo: Hibernia Corporate Communications

PAUL BONITATIBUS: Payment delay needed / Photo: Hibernia Corporate Communications

GO Loans

In early November, Hibernia joined a loan program by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) that allowed certain banks to make SBA-backed loans in the disaster zone.  This new pilot “GO Loan” program would be open for a year.  Herb Boydstun said it was “a needed first step …” and hoped there would be “even greater flexibility from the SBA …”

The GO Loans were a public-private partnership intended to allow local banks to make quicker credit decisions and reduce SBA paperwork, cutting some red tape.  It was no secret SBA had been swamped by requests for assistance.  Hibernia and Capital One had quietly petitioned Washington to allow local banks to do the lending themselves with a government safety net, and the GO Loans were partly due to that effort.

“We agree with the SBA … that providing funds through locally based financial institutions will speed delivery of loans to small business owners …,” Boydstun said.

Chain reaction

Meanwhile, the decision inside Hibernia to defer loan payments caused a chain reaction of activity – and concerns.  It was an unprecedented move automatically to suspend payments for so many people, so many types of loans.  The computer re-programming needed, although largely hidden from view, was complicated.

Such a long deferral period sparked concern about the catch-up that would be imposed on customers later.  Would thousands of evacuees from the eligible zip codes, now scattered across the country, be able to resume payments?  Or would there be higher delinquencies?

Boydstun cautioned, “We have to be prepared to see a lot of movement in delinquency.”  Bob Kottler, senior executive vice president in charge of Texas expansion, expected “payment deferrals would be a new challenge.”

A nightmare to reprogram

Mike Quinn, head of consumer lending and loan services and administration, recalled, “We deferred 192,000 accounts.”

“This was all new work.  This was not something that you just open the book and say, ‘Oh, yes, here it is, chapter three.  This is how you do this.’  This was sitting down and thinking through how do we do that, and then how do we test it to make sure, when we do it, we don’t create a nightmare.  It was just an incredible amount of time and effort and energy that went into the planning and systems work.”

Why was it so hard?

“Well, it is easy to say, but it is not easy for 192,000 accounts in three different loan portfolios with 15 or 20 different kinds of products.  Maybe Mark’s loan is pre-paid, so how do we treat the interest if we defer him?  Ross is past due.  How do we treat late fees when we defer him?  When it comes to re-stabilize everybody in January when the deferrals end, if Ross was past due when we deferred him, do we put him back on past-due status?

“There were a thousand variables … We would sit here day after day after day and just think we got them all, and then Janice (Gill) would walk in, scratch her head and say, ‘Now, we have a new one and how are we going to do this?’

“We’d have Pauline (Appleby) on the phone and we’d have Jan (Macaluso) on the phone and Marsha (Gassan), just trying to figure out all the ramifications … Then we’ve got to get all the lawyers to sign off on it because it changed all the disclosure requirements on our loans … And we had to prepare letters … to all these borrowers, all of which has to be done by a system.  Just the accounting for all of this was mind-bogglingly complex.”

And, never mind how to mail notices to the customers who had no addresses anymore.

“We never had any idea how difficult it was going to be.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Her home was destroyed

JANICE GILL: Her new home was destroyed / Photo: Russ Hoadley

JANICE GILL: Her new home was destroyed / Photo: Russ Hoadley

Janice Gill, a native of St. Bernard Parish, was a 19-year employee of Hibernia, having worked for the company since high school. The 37-year-old Gill had risen to senior vice president in charge of loan systems support. 

She was a single mom with two children, 18 and 12.  They lived in Meraux, a small town virtually wiped out by Katrina. 

Her home was ruined by eight feet of water when the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet overflowed its levees and swamped the area.  

Gill evacuated to Baton Rouge, then Arkansas and finally Dallas.  She eventually returned to New Orleans and went about moving her department and her home to Baton Rouge.  

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Operational burden

The burden fell on Janice Gill, senior vice president and manager of loan systems support, and others in loan administration.  Gill, a Hibernia employee since high school, was in charge of applications related to loans – computer programs with names such as Advanced Loan System (ALS), Shaw System, LeasePlus, Total Systems, Appro Loan Center and LaserPro.

After the mainframe was recovered in Dallas, a large part of getting these applications up and running again was up to her and her small staff, especially John Marlborough, Barbara Shoemaker, Fay Paysse, Shahla Canafax, Michele Picou and Patricia Charles.  

HUGE WALL OF WATER: The storm surge that cam across St. Bernard parish was estimated at 30 feet / Photo: Unknown

HUGE WALL OF WATER: The storm surge that cam across St. Bernard parish was estimated at 30 feet / Photo: Unknown

On Saturday before the storm, she went in to her downtown office to finalize disaster plans.  She had 20 employees who were prepared to operate remotely from various locations.  Then she evacuated with her daughters, first to Baton Rouge, then to Osceola, AR – not far from Memphis – to meet other family. They had a safe haven set up, where her sister’s family lived, a place they had gone to in previous storms.

By Wednesday, she had to leave for Dallas to join her staff and restore systems.

That was “one of the hardest days for me personally,” she recalled.  She had to leave her parents and other family and take her children to a strange city.  Where would they live?  Where would her children go to school?

GILL'S KITCHEN: Mud and grass covered countertops / Photo: Janice Gill

GILL’S KITCHEN: Mud and grass covered countertops / Photo: Janice Gill

In Dallas, Gill got help from an unexpected source.  Judy Quinn, her boss’ wife, helped her find a place to live, a kindness for which she will always be grateful.

Indeed, Judy Quinn helped many of her husband’s employees find apartments.

Then, Mary Jo Hoch, Dallas’ commercial lending manager, helped her find schools for her children.  Through all this, Gill’s 18-year-old daughter was a blessing.  “I relied on her a lot.  She was my support system.”

Home lost

Gill needed all the support she could get.  Besides business hurdles, she soon realized she probably did not have anything left in Meraux.  The new home she had purchased three months before was probably a total loss.  During the first week of October – five weeks after evacuating to Dallas – she got her first look.  She took a weekend to drive back and found her home had been flooded in eight feet of water.

It “was like stepping into another time … Everything was colorless … It was like walking into an old house in the woods.  Everything was topsy-turvy.  There was even marsh grass in my living room.”

When she had gone to act of sale on the house in May, her mortgage company assured her that it would take care of flood insurance.  However, she discovered with a sinking heart that it had not.

Hardest project

One thing lifted her spirits. A plastic bin containing treasured photos had floated. The pictures were unharmed.

Back in Dallas, the seemingly customer-friendly loan deferral policy was starting to be a nightmare.  Gill called it the hardest recovery issue her team encountered.

It was hard to stop the auto-debit feature.  Odd as it might seem, there was no simple way to “turn it off” in each of the loan applications.  Such a change required new programming.  It had to be done very quickly, without the usual testing and refinement.

“I tried to lead by example,” Gill recalled.  She tried to “keep the ‘buts’ and ‘can’ts’ out of the room.”Just creating a standard definition of “deferral” across all of the applications was a problem, she found.  The software creators had never contemplated such an extensive delay of payments, and there was no “canned approach.”  It all required programming by people who were dealing with personal issues as well as the work.

When the software changes were complete, there was still the problem of getting notification letters to thousands of customers, most of whom, like Gill herself, were displaced.  The U.S. Postal Service was in disarray, Hibernia’s statement processor had fallen behind, and to make sure notifications accurately reflected the new policy required hours of writing, editing and review.

Finally, systems designed to spit out automatic warning notices to credit agencies when accounts fell delinquent now had to be “tricked” to abort that function.  Again, it fell on Gill’s programmers to write imaginative code that was not in the book.  “We had to clear credit bureau data, waive late fees and monitor mail dates.”  All of it took an enormous amount of time and energy.  “It became a standing joke:  The deferral program is never going to end,” she smiled.Credit warning ‘abort’

As she reflected on the recovery in January 2006, Gill was looking ahead.  She had big things to accomplish:  New software releases for her major loan systems, the relocation of her team to Baton Rouge, continued integration of systems into Capital One, the unwinding of all of the software code for the deferral program.

Her conclusion about the disaster, both for herself and for the company?

“We’re going to be so much smarter next time

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Issues ‘of our own creation’

JIM KITTO: Loan defrrals brought headaches / Photo: Russ Hoadley

JIM KITTO: Loan defrrals brought headaches / Photo: Russ Hoadley

Jim Kitto had been with Hibernia for seven years, but the 65-year-old had been a banker “my whole life.”  Married 43 years, he and his wife, Marilyn, had three adult children,  41,  38 and 36.  He lived in the city’s Bywater area and made careful storm plans.  They evacuated to Lake Charles, a 12-hour drive, and their home escaped major damage until the flood.

After five days at the Lake Charles bank, he went to Baton Rouge and worked outside Steve Lousteau’s office.  He tried to find employees and help in any way he could – to get the “shared banks” up in Jefferson Parish, to get keys for safes, to help collect money in flooded branches, to help survey damage and eventually to re-open offices.  Kitto was an acknowledged leader in this effort, often assuming tasks when there was no one else.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Issues ‘of our own creation’

If that were the end of the payment deferral story, the program would have to be judged an operational hurdle in the service of a greater good – the welfare of thousands of storm-impacted customers.  However, it did not end there.

The deferrals brought other headaches, some “of our own creation,” noted Jim Kitto, a trade area manager in New Orleans.  Customers and employees did not understand that interest would continue under the plan.  Nor did all customers want to their monthly payments deferred.  They wanted to stay up-to-date.

“Our folks didn’t understand the program … There were many emails in the beginning, but as employees came back at different times, they didn’t all get the information.”

As more branches opened, some with new employees and more customer traffic, the problem grew.  Laura McLaughlin, north shore market operations manager summed up the feeling in the field: “It was nice, but it backfired.”  It would have been better if the bank had arranged to “let customers ask for it.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Used cardboard boxes for desks

SALLY BRINK: Trying to keep the business going / Photo: Unknown

SALLY BRINK: Trying to keep the business going / Photo: Unknown

With Katrina in the Gulf, Sally Brink took special interest, as she did with all big storms.  Her father – Air Force Maj. James G. Williams – was one of the original “hurricane hunters” and had taught her vigilance and preparation.  “My family always evacuated.  My father was very well-trained in making sure we had the necessary items and our plan of action.”  Maj. Williams died in May 2005.  “We were happy he didn’t see this horrible one, because (it) is the one he was always fearful of.”

He always cautioned that New Orleans was a soup bowl and they had to evacuate … once a storm reached a certain latitude.  “We had a master hurricane map in the den, and he plotted and watched very closely …”  When it came to disaster planning, Brink was her father’s daughter.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To complicate things, some customers got calls from collectors.  “It was really, really bad,” she said.  It was “a big nightmare.”  Concluded Kitto: “We need to figure out how to do a deferral program differently in the future.”

Loan processing woes

When Sally Brink got to Shreveport, she thought she would only be there a few days.  Brink was head of loan servicing, an area that handled virtually everything related to loans after a customer signed on the dotted line.  With 10 managers and a staff of 158, she was responsible for the paperwork, processing and safekeeping of documents and collateral for all consumer, small business and commercial loans.

With Hibernia for 14 years, Brink, 55, had been a senior paralegal with a large local law firm for 11 years, in the section for banking and finance.  Before that, she had worked for an individual attorney and for Dryades Savings & Loan – in all, about 30 years.  Brink and her husband, John, had been married 33 years and lived in Mandeville.

“On Friday before they left work, my Priority 1 team – 13 people – had the boxes and supplies that we urgently needed to set up an off-site shop for a couple of days.  We made sure everyone knew … and had their disaster recovery plan  …  Priority 2 people were to be on-site in 24 hours after an event … (and) my Priority 3 people were (to arrive) in the next 24 hours after an incident.”

In Shreveport Saturday

Brink arrived in Shreveport Saturday, and Sunday “We had temporary tables.  We found our PCs and got our phones so we could try to make sure we were prepared.”

“Monday morning, we all got to Benton Road very early, and it was pretty challenging – everyone pouring in, trying to make sure families were all okay, finding out what was going on, trying to keep the business going.”

Brink initially was assigned one room, but in a few days, as the calamity unfolded and more staff showed up, “we outgrew our area.”

“We were all just working with what we had as far as tables, computers, chairs and files were concerned.  We tried to share what we had.”

Tragedy and challenge

Deeply upsetting events confronted employees.  One of the saddest was the death of Josephine Plott, a highly regarded supervisor who succumbed to cancer after being in remission before Katrina. There were others: 

***

Daughter in fatal accident

Cynthia Narcisse, moved to Shreveport with her family to help with recovery.  Her daughter, Dominique, 17, enrolled at Louisiana Technical University in Ruston. Dominque was killed in a car accident Sunday, Oct. 2, 2005, after attending a football game with friends.  Narcisse did not return after the fatal accident.

***

Stranded in Astrodome

Loan Services employee Nettie Hock was missing after the flood, when Brink heard that she might be in Houston’s Astrodome.  A 25-year employee, Hock operated imaging scanners and was urgently needed.  “We were trying to get in touch with her by posting messages.  We even asked the collections department if they had any ideas.  They are very good at tracking down people.  We also had a vendor, Jake Hanson, a who lived in Houston and knew Nettie.”

“Between them, we were able to find her, with her mother, brother and sister and three pets.  Jake picked them up and drove them to Shreveport.  We were so happy to see them.”

***

Slept under the interstate

Erma Williams, an employee in the direct consumer loans area, “had to sleep for two nights under the I-10 overpass at Causeway before she could get a helicopter to the airport.” After being put on several flights, including one to Atlanta, she eventually reached Shreveport.

***

Stepson drowned

Andre Levigne, who worked in Shellie Gorecki’s consumer loan services area, lost her 15-year-old stepson in the New Orleans flood.  With his uncle, the boy tried to swim and drowned.

***

Mother-in-law died in nursing home

Barbara Wall, who worked in small business loan servicing, not only lost her home.  Her husband learned that his mother died while being evacuated from a Chalmette nursing home.

***

Stepfather died of heart attack

Michelle Holmes lost her stepfather when he died of a heart attack after he evacuated to Houston.

~ ~ ~ ~

“The first Sunday, I actually had a PC and a chair.  Shortly thereafter, I moved over to work on top of a cardboard box with a laptop.  We used computer boxes for workstations.  We had temporary tables.  At first, we maybe had one phone for 13 people, and it was ringing constantly.  We were pretty much on top of each other.”A box and a laptop

Soon Brink’s group was moved to the training room to gain some space.  “They were very gracious.”

“I had to implement a late shift (5 p.m. to 1 a.m.), because we didn’t have enough room or enough PCs.  I tell you we had some dedicated people.  We had some real heroes.”

“We didn’t have TV.  We didn’t have radio.  We did have access to the Internet.  We were trying to do two things – we were trying to do the bank’s work (and) be concerned with what was going on with our families and friends.”

Worried about staff

“Oh, we had tremendous challenges trying to find all of our people, because we did not know where they evacuated to.  We only had our emergency list that gave home and cell numbers.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

‘You know, we moved the company’

MIKE QUINN: 'This was a transforming experience' / Photo: Donn Young

MIKE QUINN: ‘This was a transforming experience’ / Photo: Donn Young

Mike Quinn, 59, was head of consumer lending, loan services and loan systems support.  With 40 years in banking, he’d spent the last five at Hibernia.  He and his wife, Judy, had been married 20 years.  The Quinns evacuated to Dallas, catching the last flight Sunday.  Watching the news, he had a “sinking feeling … you just sit transfixed.”

He was awed by how well people stepped up.  “You know, we moved the company … we picked the whole damn thing right up, right out of the city, and moved it …”

He was concerned about getting as much “personal stability as we could for people.”  Judy helped by negotiating 10 apartment leases for his staff.

He was proud of Sally Brink, Shellie Gorecki and Janice Gill, all “solid, get-the-job-done kind of people.”  They had “the personal strength of character to carry the burden.  This was a transforming experience … I can honestly say I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  It’s been a joy watching … that human spirit that just rises to levels that people don’t thing they could ever reach.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“(We) were constantly trying to find our employees, and what helped most would be that employees would go into a branch wherever they were and use the email system, because they didn’t know how to get in touch with us, either.”  Later on, with a call-in number, she found staff in California, Florida, North Carolina and Alabama.

Sharks on Canal Street?

“A lot of folks really didn’t grasp how horrible it was, because we didn’t see the television.  We only heard rumors.  I remember someone coming in and saying there were sharks on Canal Street because the Aquarium was destroyed … That was a vivid picture …”

“As time went on, we heard about the shooting and the looting, and everybody’s eyes were, like, ‘Oh, my God’ … It was unreal.  We put our heads down and continued to work.

“Many of my folks made Hibernia their priority, even making their own insurance claims and all of that secondary.”

Buried in work

Days stretched into weeks, and Brink’s area became buried deeper and deeper under a blizzard of loan document requests.

“We tracked flood insurance, so we had people asking for copies of their policies, because they had lost their houses or they had evacuated and didn’t have them.”  Or “their payment through the mail wasn’t received, because the Post Office was flooded, and they were past due.”  Or they needed titles to get “insurance payoffs for cars that were flooded.”

“No matter how hard we worked, we still were getting further and further behind.”

‘Imaging’ pros and cons

Normally, to fulfill such requests was all in a day’s work.   Hibernia used scanning equipment, and Brink was in charge of the first imaging project to digitize loan documents.  With this system, it was relatively easy to find a “picture” of a document, make a printout and mail or fax it.  Collateral such as titles still had to be kept in fireproof vaults and was retrieved manually.  Trouble was, the equipment was in New Orleans.  More machines had to be purchased and installed in Shreveport.  Even with that, it worked very slowly because of

FIRST BACK: Troy Walker and James Wamboldt drove back for stock certificates / Photo: Unknown

FIRST BACK: Troy Walker and James Wamboldt drove back for stock certificates / Photo: Unknown

There were so many issues for which they had to create “bootstrap solutions.”  An example was car dealerships.  They had on-going communications with dealers about car titles – obtaining them when cars were bought and releasing them when loans were paid.  From their new location, “We worked to get something out to our dealers, to give them our new mail codes and physical addresses for UPS and FedEx; also for our branches and anyone who might get a customer’s call.”connectivity trouble.  “It took us twice as much time,” she recalled, which was especially frustrating when she had customers holding on the phone.

Force-placed insurance

An unexpected customer benefit emerged from the chaos.  Brink’s department “force-placed” insurance for vehicles and homes held as collateral if owners did not buy their own.  Some force-placed policies were for hazard and flood insurance.  Customers sometimes got irritated by this practice.

“One of the happiest times I remember,” Brink recalled, “was when a senior processor, Becky Adams, looked across the room at me and said, ‘You know, now all those loan officers and customers … are so happy we did that’.”

225 BARONNE: Muck covers floors / Photo: Unknown

225 BARONNE: Muck covers floors / Photo: Unknown

Deferral backlash

That was one of a very few positive moments.  “Our volume was just overwhelming, and then we went into the deferral program.”  Hibernia wanted to defer payments on certain loans for three months.  “… But many of our customers weren’t affected by the hurricane and didn’t want the automatic deferral, so then we got requests to take them off …”

Collateral vault

Another problem was all of the collateral kept in New Orleans – car titles, deeds, stock certificates, promissory notes.  These were still in two large vaults.  “Once insurance companies paid off loans, they wanted the title or release of the mortgage.

A couple of weeks after the storm, this created a major issue when a wealthy customer who had pledged several million dollars of stock for a loan, now wanted to liquidate it.  However, the stock certificates were in one of vaults.

LOAN SERVICES MAYHEM: Records strewn about / Photo: Unknown

LOAN SERVICES MAYHEM: Records strewn about / Photo: Unknown

“I had to coordinate with the bank’s armored car company.  I asked two of my supervisors who are young men – James Wamboldt and Troy Walker – if they would drive back to New Orleans.  They went with an armed guard and climbed 25 flights of stairs in a building that had been flooded, had no electricity, no air conditioning and in the dark, to get into that vault and retrieve all the stock.”

First time back

Sometime after Wamboldt and Walker made their dash into the city, Brink and two of her section managers – Susie Miller and Roselita Enriquez – returned for their first look at their ruined offices on Baronne Street.  “We were just shocked … by how much damage our building had suffered.  All the windows were blown in, there was water damage, the ceiling tiles were broken, file cabinets turned upside down and a mess everywhere.  We had to pick our way through.”

HELTER SKELTER: Partitions, furniture, files / Photo: Unknown

HELTER SKELTER: Partitions, furniture, files / Photo: Unknown

They collected unfinished work that had been prepared weeks before.  “We had customers’ cashier’s checks that were ready to be mailed.  We had collateral that was released and ready to be mailed.  We picked up as much as we could in boxes and loaded it into our personal cars.

“Another priority was to retrieve employees’ personal items from the top of their desks and in their drawers.  Some of them had left checkbooks.  Some of them had pictures, whatever.  So we boxed up everybody.”

Clearing out the collateral vaults

Later, Brink arranged a complete cleanout of the two collateral vaults.  “We had to get state troopers.  We had three 18-wheelers.  We had a company come in and box up all the … material and all the files and anything else we kept in the vaults, and we moved it.

“It took about three days to pack up.  We trucked it all to (Shreveport), and in one weekend we offloaded the three trucks … We were very, very cautious … We got all the files, and we were open for business Monday morning.”

One more trip was required, with two trucks, to finish retrieving the rest of the filing cabinets and microfiche records.  With that, the entire loan services function was moved.

It would never come back to New Orleans.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Son wins contest

Marcia Bloodworth, one of Sally Brink’s employees, had a son, Joshua, who entered an essay in a contest sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.  The topic was “Overcoming Amazing Circumstances to Achieve Your Goals.” 

Joshua’s essay, which won first place, was about his family’s evacuation experience during Katrina.When Joshua was asked to read it at an awards ceremony, a representative of the National Education Association was in the audience and awarded him $500 and a trip to Washington, D.C.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

An upbeat person by nature, Brink did her best to support her people.  “A lot of my folks weren’t able to go back to their homes until (city and parish officials) opened up those areas,” she recalled.  “It was hard, but I knew I had to be strong for my folks … and compassionate.  We helped each other.  A lot of them would have their little periods of meltdown.  We laughed about it, we found something good about it and we just kept trucking on.Upbeat by nature

“I did lose people because they couldn’t continue under those conditions or their family was back home and they didn’t want to be away from their loved ones.  It’s been tough, but we keep saying every day it’s going to get better.”

She called in temporary help, some 50 positions, which did not work out very well.  Computer systems were slow for a while, and her people wanted to get into apartments rather than hotel rooms because they were in Shreveport for so long.  They needed schools for their children, too.

Move to Dallas

STEADFAST WORKERS: 'Just kept on trucking / Photo: Sally Brink

STEADFAST WORKERS: ‘Just kept on trucking / Photo: Sally Brink

Midway through this, she had to tell her people that their jobs would not be returning to New Orleans.  To improve resiliency, the bank had decided to move loan processing and other functions to Shreveport and Dallas, permanently.

“We thought we’d only be here through October,” she recalled.  Then they were asked to stay until January, and then, “We made an announcement in December that we would not be returning.”

“… Now people have been told that some will stay in Shreveport and then most will be relocated to Dallas.  The challenge is either to sell their home, and if they were damaged, to have them repaired.  “Many of them don’t have insurance.  They are trying to make that decision: Do they stay with the company and move?”

FUTURE SHOCK: They faced hard decision about Dallas / Photo: Sally Brink

FUTURE SHOCK: They faced hard decision about Dallas / Photo: Sally Brink

And Brink?  “Hibernia has been good to me, and it’s a fine company.  We gained valuable lessons from this.  Some positive experiences have come out of it.”

‘In total disbelief’

“We hunkered down for a couple of days … we followed it on the news and the internet … I have been through so many hurricanes at my age … but I was in total disbelief.”

So said Ellen Hymel, 63, the high-energy head of the small business loan-servicing department.  She and her husband, Jerry, who was retired, evacuated to Sulphur (near Lake Charles), where their oldest son, an environmental geologist, had been working on a project.  He got extra rooms for them as well as for his own family.  The Hymels have two other sons, including Jay, a web-engineering manager who also worked at Hibernia.

The couple left about 3 a.m. Sunday, hoping to avoid traffic, and stuck to secondary roads like U.S. 90.  “It was relatively easy, considering,” Hymel said.

A 21-year employee at Hibernia (and First National Bank of Jefferson Parish, which merged with Hibernia), she ran a department that booked small business loans.  She had a staff of 27, including three section managers.

Her disaster recovery team leader, Barbara Wall, and Amelia Tessitore made their way to Shreveport before the storm.  Michelle Holmes and Pat Gillikin, her Priority 2 supervisors, followed a little later.  Before leaving, they packed loan documents away in two fireproof cabinets.  “We thought we’d be back there on, say, Tuesday.”

Hymel’s people took materials needed to prepare loan documents — such things as procedure manuals and “anything they could not access on-line and even those things they could access, thinking that the (intranet) system might be down.”

After the storm passed, Hymel went to the Hibernia’s Sulphur branch.  “I went behind the teller line and got on a PC, and I could communicate with my team.  When we saw how desperately bad this was, I tried to reach my section managers and anyone else that I could.”

First concerns

Her first concerns were about family.  Her 95-year-old mother lived in a Kenner adult care facility.  “My sisters that were in the area tried to get in contact, but you couldn’t get through.  Those were the most frustrating and scariest moments …” Eventually, she learned that her older sister drove on the levee in St. Charles Parish with her son-in-law, a policeman, to reach and evacuate their mother.  They took her to Houston and then put her on a plane to Atlanta to stay with another sister.  “She will be there permanently,” Hymel sighed.  “The trip really did affect her negatively.  It was a very traumatic experience.”

Hymel and her husband lived on the West Bank and her “home was relatively unscathed.”  The Metairie home of her son Jay just escaped flooding.  “The water stopped at the corner … We were blessed.”

After reaching her managers, Hymel went into Hibernia’s Lake Charles tower, where she set up a temporary office in the small business area managed by Thom Williams.  “They were absolutely wonderful to us.”  While staying in touch with her crew, another section manager, Janet Rich, and other employees joined her in Lake Charles.  They made plans to move everyone to Shreveport.  Eventually, out of 27, a total of 25 showed up, “trickling in over a period of 30 days.”

Like Brink’s employees, Hymel’s people were assigned an area on the second floor of the Benton Road branch.  Also like Brink, Hymel’s desk “consisted of three computer crates, one turned on its side so that I could stick my knees underneath, and two on each side to give me workspace and an area for my laptop.”  It stayed that way for about a month.

Arm-to-arm and side-by-side

“Everyone else sat in this one big room, and we put in tables like a big U.  Everyone had maybe three feet of space at most, arm-to-arm, sitting side-by-side, working to get loan docs out.  We had some meltdowns, but for the most part, I can tell you I am proud of my team.  I would say 70% of the folks who came up to Shreveport lost everything.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

More misery

Night on the roof — One of Ellen Hymel’s people, Jeanne Brown-Maheia, was rescued by helicopter from a New Orleans rooftop.  Her home was on Elysian Fields Avenue in a heavily damaged area, and she wound up spending the night on her roof.Hymel also had several St. Bernard Parish employees whose homes were ruined.  “Their commitment and dedication to this company is amazing to me,” she said.

***

Lost her sister — Jackie Carlson was with Hymel’s group for more than 10 years.  In the storm, her handicapped sister, who had been cared for in a community home, apparently was evacuated first to the Superdome and then to an I-10 overpass. Stranded there with hundreds of others waiting for rescue, she died.  Carlson, in Shreveport, “Tried to find her sister for over two weeks.  She went on the internet.  She finally received a call one Saturday night, and they informed her they had found her sister in the St. Gabriel morgue.”  Deeply shaken by the tragedy, Calrson told Hymel she had to leave Shreveport and get back home.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Normally, Hymel’s people processed about a thousand loans a month.  Handling these manually was hard even though volume decreased from storm areas, because other regions continued to produce as usual.Hymel’s department prepared the legal documents for small business loans on several systems, depending on the type and size of the loan.  Usually, they worked from a “pipeline” of requests coming from another area known as the business-banking center, where applications were underwritten and approved.  However, the “booking pipeline” was closed down by the storm, “so we would accept faxes … We also had branch offices for a time use local attorneys to prepare some of the documents…”

Manual processing

To manage activity, “I played traffic cop,” Hymel recalled.  She wanted “some central person who could take everything that was coming in and direct it to wherever it needed to go … They were logged on a pad with pencil; just logged in (with a note about) which loan administrator would take care of it.  We had to (do that) because we didn’t have the (automated system).”  Her log eventually ran to 15 pages.

It was important “that we had legally correct documents, that we had necessary controls in place, to make sure that the bank’s lien positions were protected.”

Doing everything by hand meant, “we had to go back to the way things were done … say 20 years ago … Everybody had to just rely on what they had learned and what they knew and make sure everything was in order … manually.”

Reports, information lacking

Hymel discovered that important tracking reports had to be re-created since they were working manually.  Her people also found they could not rely on vendors who normally supplied information, or on court clerks and mortgage offices, for that matter.  If they were in the disaster zone, most were closed.  “For example, if we had to order a lien search on real estate, where was that if our vendor was under water?”

Likewise, if completed loans had been sent to be recorded at the Jefferson or Orleans parish court clerks before the storm, it was practically impossible to learn their status.

Dedication and pride

Hymel was moved by the “complete dedication and commitment of these people.  I have never seen people so selflessly give, and that has surprised me.”  She was “just very proud that we pulled together as a team, that everybody was willing to help each other out, and no matter what it took, the team as a whole came together.”

CONSUMER LENDING 'GO' TEAM: Kim Ferrier, Amy Boullosa, Gwen Wahl / Photo: Desiree Bild

CONSUMER LENDING ‘GO’ TEAM: Kim Ferrier, Amy Boullosa, Gwen Wahl / Photo: Desiree Bild

On the other hand, “it saddened me to see the pain that these people were suffering.  It broke my heart.”

Move to Dallas?

In the midst of everything, Hymel learned that her department would not be returning to New Orleans.  This posed an agonizing personal decision …“really the most difficult …” The company wanted her to move to Dallas, but “that would mean moving away from a community of friends, not acquaintances, but people who are there for you … it would mean completely starting over.”

So Hymel decided to retire.  All of her section managers were going to Dallas, “which is a real plus,” and Hymel was “working diligently to transition … things over to them.”

And would she miss her computer-crate desk?  “I just hated giving

Amelia Tessitore, Ladonna Precourt, Sharon Baxter-Brown

Amelia Tessitore, Ladonna Precourt, Sharon Baxter-Brown

up that modular furniture,” she laughed.

Similar issues everywhere

Hymel’s boss, Shellie Gorecki, who was in charge of the entire consumer loan servicing area, had similar issues throughout the department.  Because her people were part of the “go team” that had to provide business recovery service to lenders throughout the enterprise, they had nowhere to hide.  Gorecki, 46, and her husband, Donald, were married for 26 years and had two daughters, 25 and 22.  She had been with the bank 19 years, starting out as a teller.

Her first wave of recovery employees consisted of just 16 of about 100.  Soon, she had to have all of them in Shreveport.  It was nerve wracking to call them to come when she did not always know

Barbara Wall

Barbara Wall

where they would be housed.  Helping her was Desiree Bild, a manager in the non-real estate section of Consumer Loan Administration, who had been with the company five years.  Bild and her husband, Chris, married for seven years, had an eight-month-old daughter.  Bild spent her first days and nights tracking down people and trying to arrange space for them … both at work and in hotels.

Usually did not evacuate

Gorecki believed her home in Slidell was gone.  “We hadn’t been able to prep, to get it boarded up … but I didn’t really worry about the house at that moment, because there was so much to do.”

In most storms, Gorecki did not evacuate, preferring to be with her “stay team” in the Hibernia Center.  This time was different.  Besides getting her own family out, she and her husband had to persuade his mother (in a wheelchair) and sister to leave.  “They kept hemming and hawing, but we said, ‘You have to go’.”  The couple eventually led a four-car caravan from Covington.

No access to systems

Once in Shreveport, her first issue revolved around staff not being able to sign into loan processing systems.  Passwords that had worked in New Orleans were obsolete after applications were brought back up.  “We spent a couple of days getting that worked out,” Gorecki said.

Because they didn’t have enough workspace or office supplies, Bild scrambled to get things.  Like others, they created workspace with boxes.  She went to Sam’s Warehouse to buy tables, equipment, paper and printer supplies.

Reaching people was “enormous trouble” and became Bild’s sole job for a while.  Gorecki’s people were scattered, and their phones mostly did not work.  In addition, there were problems about how many family members and pets had come with them.  Some had needs such as baby beds, highchairs or medical equipment or wanted smoking rooms.  Even though hotels were accommodating, life quality issues took time to resolve.

Some ‘meltdowns’

Among the people jammed into the Benton Road facility, Gorecki recalled, there were “some meltdowns … It was hairy, because people had lost things.  They would start crying, and when branch people called in, from Texas offices especially, “They were not sympathetic,” she remembered.  Their attitude seemed to be “Ya’ll had a storm, but business has to keep moving.”

When Gorecki’s husband got back to their home, it seemed almost miraculous the house was not flooded.  “There was four feet in the road, and it came right up to the doorstep.” It made Gorecki feel guilty “because so many in my group lost everything.  I didn’t talk about it.  I couldn’t act happy.”

Holiday time very hard

A hard time came in December, when many employees – who had worked steadily for three months away from New Orleans – began to realize they would not be home for Christmas.

It was also frustrating “not knowing where we would end up.”  Some would eventually go to Dallas, some to Baton Rouge, others elsewhere.  As it turned out, Gorecki ended up in Baton Rouge.  In April 2006, she wrote, “Doing very well.  Just closed on my new house yesterday and we will be moving in to it on Sunday.  So exactly nine months to the day, my husband and I will be living in our (new) home under the same roof again.

“What a blessing and wild adventure has been.”

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