US co-ops and credit unions rush to aid communities hit by Hurricane Harvey

Electric co-ops in Texas and Louisiana are battling to restore power while the rest of the movement is working to help stricken communities

As the devastation caused to southern Texas and Louisiana by Hurricane Harvey worsens, co-ops and credit unions are rushing to the aid of their members, and to the stricken communities.

Texas and Louisiana both declared a state of emergency after the cyclone hit on 25 August, bringing high winds and flooding to the region and forcing the evacuation of several major cities.

Federal Emergency Management Agency director Brock Long called the storm, which has brought catastrophic flooding to the city of Houston, the worst disaster in Texas’ history.

The rising death toll has reached at least 47 – one in Guyana and 46 in the USA – and recovery is expected to take several years.

Electric co-ops in both states have been battling to assess the damage to power infrastructure, hampered by rising floodwaters and tough weather conditions in the hardest-hit areas.

A bulletin on the America’s Electric Co-ops website warned power disruption could last weeks, with electricity cut off from hundreds of thousands of meters.

As the storm hit Texas, San Patricio Electric Co-op suffered a near-total system outage, affecting more than 11,000 meters, while Victoria Electric Co-op lost power to more than 23,000 meters. It is estimated more than 55,000 co-op members lost power in Southeast and South Central Texas over the weekend.

“We are starting to rebuild and restore our system slowly,” said Nina Campos, manager of human resources and communications at Victoria.

She said the co-op had restored power to roughly 1,000 members, and called in 166 linemen from neighbouring co-ops to help speed up the repairs.

“This was a very different storm that I don’t think anyone could have prepared for,” she added. “We’ve had an unbelievable amount of rain and extremely damaging winds. Several areas of our service territory are flooded or flooding now.”

The online community for the sector, Texas Co-op Power, said on its website: “Storm-damaged co-ops welcomed the support of other co-ops crews from all corners of the state to help restore power.

“As of noon Monday, more than a quarter of the state association’s members had contributed crews and other resources toward the restoration efforts, demonstrating the true spirit of co-operatives.”

Food co-ops in the area are also working to help their communities.

On its Facebook page, NuWaters Cooperative in Houston has stated its intention to stay open and provide as much food as possible.

It said: “There is not much food available in the city with the floods. But we are the little co-op that could, and our community has food. And we are selling it at the same prices when there is not a storm. Because co-ops are here for the people—the community. We are not here to take advantage of the storm; we are here because we care.

The National Guard help residents hit by floods in Houston (Photo: Texas Military Department)

“Historically, we would not have food available during a storm. Now, with the co-op, we have food in a food desert – even during a storm with flood waters locking in our community!”

Texas’s credit unions are also hard at work trying to restore their services and help stricken communities – and have been affected themselves. The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) said nearly 50 credit union institutions have reported closures and damage from the hurricane.

The Cornerstone Credit Union League, the umbrella body for the Texan CU sector, said the south of the state was facing “more showers and flooding … on a scale that’s unprecedented”.

A statement on its website said: “All credit unions in the affected areas are being assessed and monitored by Cornerstone’s Disaster Response Team in order to be as responsive as possible in providing assistance wherever needed.”

President and chief executive Caroline Willard added: “Cornerstone Credit Union League and the Foundation stand ready to help all credit unions in regions affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“Our disaster response team has been prepared since before the hurricane struck, and we will continue to offer assistance when the storm and resulting flooding issues have passed.”

Grants are available for credit union employees and board members to assist with immediate disaster relief needs, such as out-of-pocket costs that may result from being evacuated.

“We’re in fairly constant contact with our credit unions in the gulf area,” said Jon Gorman, senior vice president of communications and outreach at Cornerstone. “We’re continually reassessing what is going on down there, and have a disaster response team in place actively delivering support to the credit unions affected by this disaster.”

CUNA and the National Credit Union Foundation are co-ordinating relief efforts with Cornerstone, and CUNA president/CEO Jim Nussle has been in close contact with Caroline Willard to provide assistance as necessary.

Patrick Jury, chair of CUNA, has called on the national credit union movement to marshal its resources to help.

“When catastrophes strike our communities, credit unions and their staffs are always there, in the heart of it, selflessly doing whatever they can to aid and support their neighbors, friends, and families,” he said.

“The days to come will no doubt reveal that the disaster to befall the Houston area and areas across the southern coast of the United States will rival some of the most destructive natural disasters our nation has ever experienced. As always, credit unions must—and will—do whatever we can to help.”

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) has also been assisting its members in the affected states.

Flooding in Houston has reached catastrophic levels (Photo: Jill Carlson)

“We have been monitoring the situation constantly since last week, and NCUA staff are co-ordinating with other agencies and working continually to provide assistance to credit unions and their members,” said chair J. Mark McWatters.

“This has been a devastating storm affecting millions of people, and the effects will be felt for months or even years. The NCUA will be on the job as long as necessary.”

The National Credit Union Foundation’s site is available to receive donations to help credit union people affected by the storm.

“Tropical Storm Harvey has dramatically reminded us that natural disasters can come upon us with amazing speed,” said Todd Clark, president and chief executive of CO-OP Financial Services, which has donated $10,000 to the fund.

“We have been proactively contacting clients in the impacted areas to assess needs and determine where we can help. The $10,000 donation on behalf of our client credit unions is one expression of that outreach, and available at all times to members of participating credit unions is our vast networks of branches and ATMs, ensuring access to accounts for those displaced by the flooding.”

The Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF) has begun accepting donations to assist area co-operatives as they work to resume operations in the days, weeks and months ahead.

For more information on where and how to give, click here.

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