America’s co-ops rush to help victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Credit union organisations have set up disaster response services and electric co-ops have rushed to the aid of Florida as the storm hit

With Florida reeling under the impact of Hurricane Irma, and Texas and Louisiana beginning the recovery process from Hurricane Harvey, co-ops and credit unions in the USA are continuing to help those affected by the disasters.

The Credit Union National Association (CUNA), and credit union service organisations CO-OP Financial Services and PSCU have joined forced to create a system-wide disaster response for the credit union movement.

This includes toll-free numbers which credit union members can call for access and branch information if they are displaced or their branch has been forced to close.

“These unprecedented natural disasters call for a unified response from organisations that service credit unions – whose mandate is always ‘people helping people’,” said Jim Nussle (CUNA), Todd Clark (CO-OP) and Chuck Fagan (PSCU), president/chief executives of their respective organisations, in a combined statement.

“CO-OP and PSCU are both credit union service organisations (CUSO), but even as competitors, the co-operatives are built and owned by credit unions and truly exist to serve credit unions. The two companies are rallying to support our industry because that’s what it means to be a CUSO,” the statement continued.

“We have all been proactively contacting clients and member institutions in the impacted areas to assess needs and determine where we can contribute. More than that, though, CUNA, CO-OP and PSCU will be working together in the long-term to help credit unions smoothly connect with their members, and members connect with their credit unions, in time of greatest need.”

The three organisations are also working closely with Texas’s Cornerstone Credit Union League and directly with clients in the area.

Cornerstone president / chief executive Carolina Willard said: “We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from our system partners.

“The toll-free hotlines will be a tremendous resource for impacted members in the Gulf Coast. Even better, it adds to the disaster recovery capabilities for the movement moving forward.”

Related: Emergency appeal for co-ops hit by southern Asia and Caribbean disasters

And in Houston, which suffered catastrophic flooding when Harvey hit, grocery co-op NuWaters has, through its Facebook page, told how it managed to stay open to provide food, take packages to shelters and help other stores stock up.

“We have been doing what a co-op is supposed to do,” it said. “This is the most amazing experience ever. Now, we know how important co-ops are for communities.”

Food Co-op Initiative set up a donation service to help NuWaters restock after its “inventory was wiped out through bulk donations to local programs, limited sales, and helping neighbours who were not receiving pay while the town shut down”.

NuWaters is also raising funds to help members who lost their homes in the floods and has been working to repair flood damage to its farm.

“The flood waters uprooted a tree, but in the herb garden, there were basil plants untouched,” said the Facebook page. “The weather was surprisingly good. And most of all we were glad to see each other. Sometimes, something so regular like working at the farm, feels really good after a terrible storm and flood, it helps to ground you, and make you very appreciative. And we all were. It was great to get back to the farm.”

Unfortunately the storage facility at the co-op’s farm was flooded, destroying all its equipment and supplies.

“We keep moving forward no matter what,” added NuWaters. “We will help ten families that are trying to recover from the storm. Lost wages, have many struggling right now.

“It looks like someone dropped a bomb on the community. Every house is destroyed.”

Hurricane Irma leaves a trail of destruction across the Caribbean (Photo: NASA)

Meanwhile, as Hurricane Irma – which had already devastated islands including Barbuda, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Anguilla and the Virgin Islands – brought a trail of destruction across Florida, electric co-ops from across the US sent teams to help the state restore power.

They include Singing River Electric Co-operative, which serves communities in Mississippi and Alabama. It has sent a team to help Clay Electric Cooperative near Gainesville.

“We understand what it is like to need the help,” says Singing River Electric CEO Mike Smith. “Florida co-ops were there for our members after Hurricane Katrina, and we are glad to lend a co-op hand.”

And the Access Energy Co-operative in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, has teamed up with other branches in the state to send 40 men and 20 trucks to help the Okefenoke Electric Cooperative, which is located near the border of Georgia and Florida.

General manager and chief executive Kevin Wheeler told the local media: “We’re here to serve our co-ops, fellow friends in Georgia and Florida.

“We want to go down there and help them. Try to get them back to a normal life as quick as we can. The co-ops in Florida called and asked us for help, so we’re sending these guys to help them get their power back on.”

John Dvorak, safety director with the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, said: “The biggest thing that we want them to do is to remember that it’s not the fact they’re turning lights back on for people, but the fact that they want to come back home to their families. We want them to come back home safely.”

Appalachian Electric Co-op has also sent crews to assist with recovery efforts.

An Alger Delta Cooperative Electric Association from Michigan said it is sending two lineworkers to Georgia to help with power restoration efforts.  

“A group of 30 lineworkers from co-ops throughout Michigan are heading south to assist our fellow co-operatives who’ve been hit hard by Irma,” says Alger Delta CEO Tom Harrell. “Every Michigan co-op has responded to the call for help and that is a powerful testimony to the co-operative principles.” 

Taking the brunt of the storm was Florida Keys Electric Co-op, which serves 33,000 meters and has consolidated its HQ buildings into a single warehouse and service centre, built to withstand a Category 5 storm.

It has also been hardening transmission and distribution circuits became part of the co-op’s strategic plan.

Chief executive Scott Newberry told the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association website that most staff had been evacuated apart from a skeleton crew.

“We’ve ordered in 72 hours of emergency food and stored it in our commercial kitchen-sized freezer and coolers,” he said Newberry.  “Trucks have been moved inside the warehouse, and the emergency generators are fuelled and ready to go.”

The state’s credit union sector is also beginning the recovery process. Virtually all the credit unions in Florida were forced to close when Irma hit, Credit Union Times reported.

The League of Southeastern Credit Unions’ disaster preparedness/response team is contacting Florida credit unions to check on their status and needs.

Three credit unions in Key West – Monroe County Teachers Federal Credit Union, Keys Federal Credit Union and Southernmost Federal Credit Union – closed their shops last Wednesday and it could be some time before they reopen, Credit Union Times added.

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