9. View from the top

Collectively, the damaging blows that hammered Hibernia’s branch network fell on the shoulders of Paul Bonitatibus, Hibernia’s consumer and business banking executive.  About half the company’s 6,500 employees were under his umbrella.  Bonitatibus was responsible for the 360-plus offices in Louisiana and Texas as well as mortgage banking, small business banking and related areas such as the private client group that served higher net worth clients.

PAUL BONITATIBUS: ran 'branch-land' / Photo: Russ Hoadley

PAUL BONITATIBUS: ran ‘branch-land’ / Photo: Russ Hoadley

Bonitatibus was a true “banker’s banker,” with 33 years in the business, a consummate professional with experience in every aspect, an effective and respected leader.  At 56, he was at the top of his game.  A passionate Notre Dame grad (and former president of its alumni association), he was recognized for his planfulness, unflagging energy and loyalty.  Besides his widely known devotion to his alma mater, Bonitatibus also had a reputation for encyclopedic recall of sports and popular music.

He began his career as a schoolteacher in Ohio, where he married his high school sweetheart, Kathy.  After their first son was born, they moved to New Orleans, which he’d heard about from a college roommate.  The couple has two other adult children.  His first bank job was as a collector and trainer in a small bank.  “It was probably the best way to learn, by just doing and moving around the other departments …” Twenty-two years ago he came to Hibernia through a merger and steadily moved up in the organization.

Headed for Cincinnati

When the storm approached, he and his wife were badgered by their children to “bail out.”  They finally battened down their Metairie house and headed for their daughter’s Cincinnati home.  Normally they would just have gone to Baton Rouge, but with the long Labor Day weekend ahead, and a commitment to attend a memorial service in Ohio, it seemed the right choice.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It did catch us a little unaware and unprepared.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Wary of gas shortages along the way, they stopped in Memphis at a cousin’s home.  It made him think.  Thirty-three years earlier, he had passed that way the first time, headed south with only $1,000 from his father for furniture and a baby bed.  Now, he was headed the other way, with maybe $300 in his pocket, “not sure if we would ever get back and not knowing what would be waiting …”

“I think … it did catch us a little unaware and unprepared … It took weeks to recover some of that information.  That was evidence that it just sort of snuck up on us.”From Ohio, he tried to watch television reports, but was “constantly on conference calls, and so I was not paying attention, but others were glued to it … and it was getting worse by the moment.”

Like others, Bonitatibus’ first effort was to reach people.  “I was mostly focused on “Tell me where you are, tell me how to reach everybody’ … We began to put together a communications tree …”

Getting an early picture

He got graphic early accounts from Kyle Waters in Metairie.  “I was on the phone with Kyle while he was riding his bike down Veterans Highway … when he got to Severn (Ave.), he said he couldn’t ride his bike anymore because of the water, and as he was talking to me, I heard him shriek a little bit because a very large fish swam between his legs.”  He also heard from Tusa in the French Quarter.  From these on-the-ground reports and others from St. Tammany Parish, Bonitatibus pieced together a picture of his damaged Louisiana infrastructure.  At the same time, he heard about the crowds showing up at Texas branches, with no papers and no identification, sometimes with only the clothes on their backs.

“We were focused on a number of things – to get the branches in the other markets opened and servicing displaced customers; how to make sure we didn’t run out of cash … We could not afford a panic.”

Two days from hell

Right after Katrina, his branch people had to contend with “… two days from hell.  Those were the days when we went dark – no systems – when folks had to make pay decisions, check-cashing decisions, all without the benefit of a trial balance or any on-line ability.  Someone suggested that before we turned the equipment off that we print a trial balance for every account.  They said it would probably be 16,000 pages or so.  We decided we didn’t need to do that.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Those were the days we went dark.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Bonitatibus drove back to Baton Rouge to join the rest of the executive team.  He could see first-hand at Louisiana’s capital how branches were being “slammed” by the onrush of desperate customers.  “The drive-ups were socked in, packed, and offices had lines out the door.  But it was strange; another bank next door had nobody.”  Hibernia’s branches stayed open each night, often until 8 or 8:30 p.m.

Congressman Richard Baker called and said “folks down at the convention center in Baton Rouge are going to get their FEMA checks. Would we be willing to go out there and open up accounts for them?”

“At that point we were just inundated at the branches, and I didn’t think we could get anybody.  Kyle said why don’t we do this — Why doesn’t Hibernia pay for buses to go and pick these people up and drop them off at offices of Hibernia, Whitney, Chase, and everybody can have a chance to open their accounts and the buses will rotate around and pick them up, take them back and bring more.”  Baker liked the idea, and that is what Hibernia did.

Meanwhile, the branches got some welcome help from displaced employees who showed up and “wanted to work so that they could continue to get paid … They showed up and we had lots of people asking, ‘What could I do?’  We had small business bankers, market operation managers, sales coaches all working in branches,” Bonitatibus recalled.  He will always feel warmly about those who stepped up to help out.

Two first-stage priorities

During this time, Bonitatibus had two priorities – to get his infrastructure out of crisis mode and to get re-established in New Orleans.  “Things had been at a heightened activity level for several weeks and then they got calmer and more day-to-day.  So we were busy, but we weren’t being ‘slammed’ anymore.  That word ‘slam’ started exiting the vocabulary.”  Shifting the attention of his managers to New Orleans, Bonitatibus started talking again about major projects and longer-term, more positive plans.  He took it as a sign of progress “… that we didn’t feel that we needed three-a-day conference calls.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What pleased me was the ‘can-do’ attitude.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Competitive juices flow again

“What pleased me was the ‘can-do’ attitude, and I think that was when my competitive juices started flowing again.  We wanted to beat the market to certain things.  We were thinking about small businesses and wanted to be one of the first back here, so we established these four business banking recovery centers.”  His people put together a program and got the message out.  “You would look in the newspaper and see Hibernia’s ad about small business recovery with four locations in Jefferson Parish next to an ad from Chase, but their business recovery center was in Baton Rouge,” he said with satisfaction.

Local merchants, as he knew from riding around the parish, were coming back quickly.  “Kyle and I were constantly stopping because we would see a guy sweeping out a doorway” and tell him about the help Hibernia could offer.

What makes sense?

He also made sure his bankers applied some logic in dealing with customers, especially small businesses that wanted to rebuild.  “They tried to help these customers think about, ‘Does it make sense to borrow all this money and re-establish your business which might be dependent on tourism or something else?  Have you really thought it through?  Is now the best time to do that, or should you take a different direction’? ”

Backlog in loan processing

Small business lending faced some serious obstacles.  The service center for underwriting and approving loans, located in New Orleans, was hit hard.  Both people and systems were impacted.  Keeping up with volume, especially from the company’s un-damaged regions, was tough for manager Danny Hebert.  “I know they were challenged,” Bonitatibus said, “but they must have had a pretty good plan because they were up and running pretty quickly.”

The consumer loan administration area was not so lucky when it evacuated to Shreveport.  “We ended up losing staff and systems and everything else.”

Mortgage banking

Mortgage banking fared better.  Its chief, Paul Peters, “did a particularly good job of connecting with the industry and finding out what Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac[1] and others were doing.  He had a constant dialogue with them.  Then he took charge,” Bonitatibus recalled.  Peters knew people would be getting insurance checks.  He could set up a method for handling them both for the mortgage area and also for consumer and small business.  “So, Paul put together a quick program and organized his folks around that.”  The issue, of course, was that if property had a lien, the lienholder had an interest in the insurance payment.  Customers strapped for cash did not like this.

Looking back, Bonitatibus confessed that he wondered whether “… anything would ever bother me.  I kept saying either ‘I am running on adrenalin’ or ‘When is this thing going to hit me’ … I don’t get frustrated or I don’t get down.”  What did affect him was an incident the first day he went back to his damaged home.  “I had three rose bushes planted with the names of our granddaughters above them.  Anna is the youngest and her little rose bush had fallen over.  I did not care what the condition of the house was.  I appealed to this little plant and I felt good because the day I went back again, her rose bush was doing great.”

For six weeks, Bonitatibus was separated from his wife and family.  In some ways, he thought, it “was easier for me to be alone to endure those first few weeks knowing that the only person I had to take care of was me.”

What to do about branches?

Bonitatibus and Waters wanted to figure out what to do about each closed and damaged location.  They wanted to “… evaluate whether it made sense or not to re-open, because the tendency would be – and I was trying to guard against this – to get back to normal just as fast as we could.  We saw lots of people doing that and it wasn’t something we felt we could afford to do.”  Waters pulled data together.  What to rebuild and what to leave shuttered required a careful balance.  Bonitatibus wanted to be a leader in banking recovery, but he did not want to re-open offices where there might be no customers for a long time.  Nor did he want to rebuild a location that had been sub-par before the storm – too small, too old, or under-utilized or over-crowded – when another site might be better.

… And safe deposit boxes?

In disasters, issues come out of left field.  They arise unexpectedly and require enormous energy and creativity.  Hibernia’s New Orleans safe deposit box problem was such an issue.  “It seemed like customers first thought about cash, then eventually got to their houses, and then thought, ‘I should get my safe box’ …“I kept thinking about those safe boxes.  I knew we would have a problem.  I guess if there was any one big frustration it was that.  We just didn’t seem to quickly put together our game plan for that.”

“It was a real complicated issue and a dangerous one because (we) had to muster people to … pull the boxes out to a staging area.”

Brokerage fared well

In Hibernia’s brokerage business, Bonitatibus could feel good about a nimble response.  The vendor that cleared investment transactions told Hibernia “… We were the only firm executing any trades.  It was like a normal day because the recovery team was already in Shreveport and processing.”  He credited Grace Frisone, a senior manager in Hibernia Investments, with making that happen.

Rita response

When, three weeks later, Rita threatened, Bonitatibus was pleased his branch leaders had learned how to avoid some of the issues they had encountered in Katrina.  People like Hugh Hamilton, in Thibodaux and Janet Morein in Lake Charles, and Charlie Cox in Beaumont, were “totally involved, supporting customers and helping employees.”

Rita — although buried behind the news of Katrina and the flood — was not a small event.  When the storm blew ashore at 2:30 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 24 between Sabine Pass and Johnson’s Bayou in Cameron Parish, it did $10-billion in estimated damage.  Even though the storm center was 275 miles west of New Orleans, it also re-flooded parts of the Crescent City and caused more wind damage.   And it slowed urgent Katrina recovery efforts.

Lake Charles, Louisiana’s fifth-largest city – with a population of 72,000 – suffered extensive damage after most residents evacuated. Because flood and wind damage and debris was widespread, evacuees were not permitted to return for two days. The city’s power utility was badly mauled, and some areas were without electricity for up to three weeks.
Further south, in Cameron, the parish seat, the carnage was worse. (The parish is renowned for its extensive fishing and hunting grounds. It also has the second-largest oil deposit in the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve system.)  The town’s older residents were no strangers to storm devastation. Forty-eight years earlier, hurricane Audrey had savaged the area, killing 390 people.

Pres. George W. Bush flew over the region Sept. 27, circling an offshore oil rig and getting an “up-close look at the devastation,” according to an Associated Press account. “This area’s hurting,” he said. He had seen “flattened and flooded homes, hundreds of downed trees, extensive roof damage and dozens of stranded and wandering cows … and a riverboat washed halfway up onto muddy ground,” according to the AP.

More to the point for Hibernia, this area, together with Beaumont, Texas, had been one of rapid growth through recent mergers and new office construction. Now, some of these branches were damaged badly and one, in Cameron, was destroyed.

To bank leaders like Bonitatibus, after Katrina and the subsequent flood, Rita seemed like a third punch to the solar plexus. They just didn’t seem to be able to catch a break.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

‘What I saw made me sick’

Mark Politz was head of property management in the southwest part of Louisiana.  When hurricane Rita hit the Lake Charles area, he kept a daily diary that described damage both to the bank damage as well as his home.  It vividly shows the complex sets of issues most storm victims faced.  (This is a condensed version.)

MARK POLITZ / Photo: Unknown

MARK POLITZ / Photo: Unknown

Thursday, Sept. 22.  Mayor of Lake Charles has called for a mandatory evacuation. With the current path of Rita headed towards Galveston, I’ve decided to stay ride the storm out.  Kinda want to see what it’s like.  Looking out, traffic on I-10 east is bumper-to-bumper. 

Friday, Sept. 23.  Up at about 3:30 a.m. and turned on the TV.  Since midnight, the storm has taken a northerly turn and is projected to make landfall between Beaumont and Lake Charles and is increasing its strength. This is a little bit too close for me. Left Lake Charles. for Baton Rouge at 4:00 a.m.

Saturday, Sept. 24 — STORM DAY.  3:30 a.m., Cannot sleep. 7:00 a.m., L.M., his son N. & I leave Baton Rouge for Lake Charles.  Drive through several squalls.  Wind and rain are heavy.  There is no one else on I-10.  Arrive at 9:00 a.m.  Trees and power lines down everywhere.  I back up into a driveway and my right rear tire slips into a ditch.  My left front tire comes off the road.  Thankfully, it grabs the road and pulls me up.  At 9:30 a.m. we arrive at the bank Tower.

LAKE CHARLES MAIN OFFICE TOWER / Photo: Mark Politz

LAKE CHARLES MAIN OFFICE TOWER / Photo: Mark Politz

Emergency generator was running.  Drive-through lanes appear to be 2-3 feet under water.  The canopy ceiling tiles and grid are destroyed.  Trash and debris is all over.  Water is running under the doors to the freight elevator.  There is 6 inches of water in the lobby.  Approximately half the windows of the Atrium have been blown out or broken.  About 1/3 of the roofing has been torn off, with the remaining severely damaged.  Glass, insulation, ceiling tiles, lights, etc., have been strewn all over the 1st & 2nd floors.  Certain areas of the central business district seem to be flooding.  This has caused the lower level of the parking garage to flood.  I decide to leave and drive by as many of the branches as I can.  One was underwater and I found that all of the glass had been blown out.  Another appears to have some roof damage and there is a tree down lying in the street.  A third showed signs of roof damage with one of the drive-through lanes damaged.  Another had extensive damage to the drive through canopy, equipment, lights, etc.

LAKE CHARLES TOWER LOBBY / Photo: Mark Politz

LAKE CHARLES TOWER LOBBY / Photo: Mark Politz

Drove to Sulphur to check on my home and what I saw made me sick.  The neighbor’s oak tree on the east side fell into my house.  Trees and power lines were down everywhere.  When I walked in the front door, water was dripping through the ceiling.  Upstairs, I noticed three 2x4s sticking through the ceiling.  In the bathroom the tree had crashed through the ceiling.

I went back to the Tower and parked in the garage.  There was now 5-6 feet of water in the exit level.  Several cars and trucks appeared to have been damaged.

Sunday, Sept. 25 – Day 1 after the Storm – GROUND ZERO.  I slept on the floor of my home last night.  It was hot, humid and very uncomfortable.  Boy was it dark!!!  I returned to the Tower and found several news reporters walking around the first floor (New York Times and the Lafayette Daily Advertiser).  We asked them to leave because the building was unsafe.  Then we inspected the roofing.  It was a waste of time because this roof was destroyed.  L.M. and I went to my house and set-up a 6,500 watt generator to hook up the fridge and freezer.  I also hooked up two fans, a TV and the coffee maker.  It’s hot, still and humid outside.  I’ve opened a few windows to start the drying out process …

HOME STRUCK BY TREE / Photo: Mark Politz

HOME STRUCK BY TREE / Photo: Mark Politz

Monday, Sept. 26 – Day 2 – Clean-up Begins.  The clean-up services arrived this morning.  First task was to secure and seal all areas allowing exterior access.  Windows, doors and penetrations to the building and structure were sealed.  By day’s end, all broken glass had been identified and the 1st floor had been secured. We received word from Entergy that it may be 4-6 weeks before we have electrical service restored.

Tuesday, Sept. 27 – Day 3 – Clean-up Continues.  A complete list of all damaged areas and floors has been compiled along with photos.  Donald Verrette with distributed systems has also been continually on-site making sure the bank’s communications remain in tack.  These systems run off of the emergency generator.  We begin repairs to the damaged roofing.  By day’s end, the loading dock roof had been replaced and they will begin on the sky-bridge.  Two generators were delivered today.  However, we will not be able to flip the switch until the city can provide us with water. 

Got home around 6:30 and the tree was still on the house.  What a mess.  Two guys pulled up with a trailer, tarps and roofing supplies.  They told me they could cut the tree off the house and cover the hole.  I chuckled.  “Come on brother, let’s go look.”  When we got back there, he took one look at the tree and said “Well, we won’t be able to remove the tree, but we can cover the hole.”  I asked him how much.  He hee-hawed around telling me his tarp cost him $250 – yadda yadda — and it was going to take him and his partner about 3-4 hours — yadda yadda.  I looked at him and said again, “How much?!?!.”  He mumbled something to his partner and looked at me and said $1,000.  I told him to get out of my (deleted) yard.

***

COUNTRY CLUB OFFICE IN LAKE CHARLES /Photo: Mark Politz

COUNTRY CLUB OFFICE IN LAKE CHARLES /Photo: Mark Politz

Tuesday, Oct. 18 – Day 24 – Green light With Yellow Caution.  I got the “green light” on some branch repair.  Have a caution light on others and should have the green light by noon today.  Things are moving along.  The bank is going to help me with some of my living expenses until the end of December.  That will help me with rental on an RV.  We are getting close to the $2-million mark on disaster recovery.  This doesn’t even take into consideration the repair process of all the damaged areas.  Yesterday was Boss’s day.  Dawn and Lori treated me to lunch.  With all this going on, I was shocked they remembered.  I sure didn’t.

Wednesday, Oct. 19 – Day 25 – 202 Beauregard Ave.  An inspector came by this morning and looked at my house.  He feels the structure is in good shape and the house can be salvaged.  That’s good news.  Now we have to find a builder to give us a cost to fix it the way we want it fixed.  Work continues.  Well over $2-million now on cleaning up.  Finally got tired of listening to everyone blaming everyone else for not having this project complete.  I told them by Friday morning we will have decided what else needs to be done and how long it was going to take to get it done.  Play time is over!

Thursday, Oct. 20 – Day 26 – ‘Get ‘er done!’  The dates have been set.  I want one contractor out of here by next Wednesday.  Trying to find a builder to come look at my house.  It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.  I am so ready to get this building back together and my home fixed.  I am so ready for a weekend to do nothing.  But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.  I have two cleaners helping with washing of clothes and cleaning the downstairs. 

Friday, Oct. 21 – Day 27 – Another TGIF!   I think we may finally be seeing the light at the end of the “disaster recovery clean-up” tunnel.  Monday will be one month since Rita came through.  We’ve done a lot and have spent a lot.  The insurance adjuster is scheduled to be here on Tuesday, 31 days after the storm.  Volumes of pictures have been taken.  LSU plays Auburn tomorrow in Tiger Stadium.  Game is at 6:45 and is being televised by ESPN.  Sure hope we get cable back on.

Saturday, Oct. 22 – Day 28 – Fred & WILMA!   Thankfully hurricane Wilma didn’t come here but I feel for those down in Cozumel and Cancun.  They are taking a pretty good beating.  Damn these hurricanes.  Well, I’m hoping this will be the last weekend that I will need to be up here.  This has truly been a learning process — what to do and what not to do and the order in which to do it.  We got cable back!  Internet service didn’t work but I’ve got a call into them to have it serviced.  Some “normalcy” is starting to take shape.  Cable guy was in our neighborhood this afternoon and we got Internet back up.  YEAH!

Sunday, Oct. 23  – Day 29 – At Home.  Stayed ahome and did some things around the house.  Went to the casino last night. It was good just to go do something different.  It was nice to just stay at home today.  I ate lunch and took a nice long nap.  I tried to get into the damaged bedroom from the window, but there was no way.  Total destruction in that room.  Tomorrow is 30 days since Rita ripped through here.

Monday, Oct. 24, – Day 30 – 1 month today.  I’m sure most people who lived through hurricane Rita can tell you what they were doing one month ago on this date.  What a sight.  Total devastation to the entire area.  We’ve made a tremendous amount of  headway.  Once contractors are gone, we can begin the rebuilding and replacement of all the areas damaged.

This started out as a business journal, but as I got further and further into it, it became very personal.  I think I have just lived through, and am living through, one of the most trying and challenging times of my life both personally and professionally.  Hurricanes affect a small portion of the world’s population.  But to those of us who are affected, it can be life altering.  Good or bad, we all deal with it in our own way.  To some, hurricanes can leave you with the same emotions you have when you lose a loved one.  It made me think about those I’ve lost and who meant a lot to me.  The comfort of knowing they were looking over me and my family gave me strength and peace.  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sign of normalcy?

Paul Bonitatibus found that “despite perhaps all the emotions everybody was experiencing, the one thing that seemed so predominant was the fact that nobody was complaining.  At one point, I finally did have someone say something about the lunch (that Hibernia provided at work sites).  I thought, ‘man, we are back.’  It was almost welcome to get a complaint.”

“I think the most satisfying thing was this company’s ability to rally and execute.  We had seen it so many times before — whether we were buying a bank, whether we were trying to survive the ‘cease-and-desist order’ (a regulatory enforcement order in the early 1990s),whatever the challenge was – Hibernia just had a way of plowing through it.”

“There was never any doubt in my mind that we would survive.  I think we came out stronger.  A lot of our people were personally affected, but I think they are stronger for it, and because they were supported by this company.”

As he looked beyond the merger with Capital One, Bonitatibus wondered if Hibernia people would “… have the same kind of affection for this employer that we enjoyed for the past 20 years …”

DONNA EXNICIOS: 'We did a good job' / Photo: Donn Young

DONNA EXNICIOS: ‘We did a good job’ / Photo: Donn Young

Office operations

The backbone of the branch network was an area simply known as office operations, run by a veteran Hibernian, Donna Exnicios, 47, an executive vice president.  With a 75-person staff, she orchestrated all behind-the-scenes branch activities, whether stocking supplies or training new tellers.  The backbone of her staff were “market operations managers” (affectionately called “MOMs”) who normally coached branches about preparing for storms.  When Katrina turned toward New Orleans, “It was too late in some markets to do the necessary things,” Exnicios recalled.  Friday and Saturday “proof work” and ATM machines were not processed.  Exnicios found the aftermath “scary … there were so many unknowns … it was so hard to communicate with either family or people at work.”

Once an auditor, the 25-year employee had a deep knowledge of the bank.  She and her lawyer husband, James, had three daughters, 17, 15 and 11.  Exnicios was legendary for her dedication. When she had been in labor with her third child, she continued to answer office voicemails into early morning hours.  As Katrina approached, her family evacuated to Orlando (“the kids went to Disneyworld, but it wasn’t that enjoyable”) and then made their way to Houston, first living in a hotel, later an apartment.  The family’s Lake Vista home was flooded, but she was philosophical: “It’s not total devastation … The furniture is still there.  The mold is still growing.”

In New Orleans, the MOMs who reported to Exnicios quickly focused on getting to the flooded branches to clear out that unfinished work.  “Property management (people) were the key,” she said.  In other markets, it was almost impossible to keep up with the swarm of customers coming in with complicated storm issues.  “Every market was impacted differently.  We had to keep the business open and we had issues regarding proof work, courier services, operations, getting more cash, working while normal processes were down or damaged.”

OFFICE OPS: Tara Tebbe, Denise Aucoin / Photo: Susan Arceneaux

OFFICE OPS: Tara Tebbe, Denise Aucoin / Photo: Susan Arceneaux

Do whatever it takes

For a while when armored truck service was down, Exnicios’ MOMs drove their own cars with cash, sometimes $1 million, in their trunks.  They helped branches understand how to deal with customers who had no checks or ATM cards, how to change addresses.  They worried about potential fraud: “Were people who they said they were?”  Exnicios thought the company was pretty lucky.  “We had a little (fraud), but we did the right things in general.”

In places like Houston, operations people helped get dazed evacuees served, and provided things they’d never done before.  To cope with the wave of human misery that came to the bank every day, “We gave out ice, coffee, box lunches, water, breakfast — whatever we could to try to make them feel comfortable.”

Bending rules

MOMs also helped offices figure out when and how to bend the rules.  One example: A customer was trying to help an elderly grandmother withdraw money from her account, but she was not a signer on the account.  “We took care of them,” Exnicios said simply.

SUSAN ARCENEAUX: Makeshift help desk / Photo: Susan Baum

SUSAN ARCENEAUX: Makeshift help desk / Photo: Susan Baum

Exnicios had an honor roll of stars:

  • Susan Baum, who worked on flooded branches and “a lot of other things” and was the “mother” to all the other MOMs.
  • Kelly Shepherd, who stepped up and took charge of safe deposit box issues, even though she had evacuated to Mississippi with her two children and had to leave them there.
  • Arthur Gibson in Houston, who helped manage all the extra customer traffic in branches.
  • Tara Tebbe, Denise Aucoin, Joanne Sanders, whose makeshift help desk in Alexandria handled 300 calls a day.

Safe boxes took a couple weeks to figure out, she recalled.  “We used gloves, spray, plastic bags … Most customers were patient.  Some thought it was our fault … but vaults are fireproof not waterproof.”

Mother to the ‘MOMs’

Susan Baum had been with Hibernia since 1979.  Her husband, Jimmy, was also an employee. Susan was retail operations manager and responsible for the MOMs (market operations managers) as wells as a help desk that handled branch questions.  She and her people evacuated to Alexandria, where Tara Tebbe and others set up shop.  During the recovery, they were a lifeline, sorting out what to do for customers with no IDs, no checks.  “We made some snap decisions about how to deal with off-line checking, cash limits, ‘not-on-us’ check cashing, moving cash from account to account,” Baum recalled.  They also served as a temporary switchboard, collecting phone numbers, helping people find one another.

SUSAN BAUM: 'Even helped wash each others' clothes' / Photo: Susan Arceneaux

SUSAN BAUM: ‘Even helped wash each others’ clothes’ / Photo: Susan Arceneaux

Baum was disappointed some employees “felt the company owed them a paycheck” but pleased others “stepped up.”  She thought some areas didn’t know how critical they were … and were slow to set up.  She was proud of the work Kelly Shepherd and Laura McLaughlin did.  She also praised Tammy Hymel in Houma, Judy Lytle in Baton Rouge and Jill Oliva in Lafayette. “I have the best team in the bank,” she said with quiet pride.   “We are always there for each other.  We even helped wash each other’s clothes.”

Reconciliations

All of the folks who worked in office operations had to help tackle how to handle reconciliationsand potential losses — that came from having so much unprocessed and damaged paperwork and the period the mainframe was down.  The causes of unbalanced ledgers were a “hundred different things – daily mistakes, volume-driven errors, limited staff, mixed-up proof work, some items left behind, rushing to meet couriers.”  As in other heavy-transaction businesses, “once behind, you get further behind every day.  It kept building,” Exnicios said.

Through it all, she thought “retail management took leadership.  We had a good crew, figuring out when and where we were going to open.”  Her area “helped coordinate cash, systems, phones, how to balance manually.”  It was all a “big coordination task to get the buildings ready … get employees ready … get cash … get supplies.”

Looking ahead

Although a longtime employee, Exnicios found herself surprised and appreciative of the company’s generosity – both Hibernia and Capital One – with employee housing and living expenses.  “Management stepped up.  It made things a lot easier.  We did a good job.”

[1] The Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation.