Credit Unions

CU Steps Up To Help Get California Wildfire Victims Back On Their Feet

When wildfires ravaged Northern Calif., FIs were the last place most would have expected to find help. But according to Erin Mendez, CEO of Patelco Credit Union, when property or even human lives are destroyed, credit unions mobilize to help members pick up the pieces through financial relief and charitable endeavors. In the latest PYMNTS Credit Union Tracker™, powered by CO-OP Financial Services, Mendez discusses Patelco’s efforts to help members rebuild their lives. Plus, find the latest credit union trends, inside the Tracker.

The costs can be overwhelming when natural disasters strike, and recent analysis puts 2017 among the costliest years for disaster-related damages.

There have been 15 significant weather and climate-related disasters reported in the U.S. this year to date, according to the latest statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

These disasters, which include hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Maria, inflicted significant financial and property losses of more than $1 billion each. Meanwhile, thousands of residents are being forced to evacuate their homes as wildfires continue to ravage California, decimating properties and causing 43 deaths so far.

While survivors deal with such a traumatic experience, community members directly affected by the wildfires and other disasters must face an almost impossible task: understanding what to do next. It’s a daunting question to ponder following loss of home and, in the worst cases, loss of life.

But, as CEO of Pleasanton, California-based Patelco Credit Union Erin Mendez said, that’s a question the CU community mobilizes to address.

Patelco was directly impacted by the fires. Thousands of members and employees faced property damage, and the fires forced the CU to close its Santa Rosa branch for 10 days because of poor air quality. Following the wildfires, it initiated its disaster relief program to assist members by getting them access to much-needed capital.

In a recent interview for the December Credit Unions Tracker feature story, Mendez told PYMNTS more about the company’s recent relief efforts and the challenges those efforts have so far encountered.

Damage Report

According to Mendez, more than 9,000 of the credit union’s members had households in the fires’ paths during the weeks when they raged. All told, 86 members lost their homes in the blazes and 60 members lost their vehicles.

In the wake of the fires, Mendez said Patelco’s first move was to open a line of communication with its members. This involved updating its website with relevant information and communicating with affected members via email, text messages, phone calls and voice messages.

The purpose of that outreach was to make sure members knew Patelco was offering some form of financial relief to those in the disaster area, Mendez said. The credit union provided members services like loan deferments, reimbursement for ATM fees and loans ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 at a lower disaster relief rate, among other services.

“We called all members that could have been impacted in the area to make sure they got either forbearance on their mortgage loans and/or deferments on any type of loan that they had,” she explained.

Mendez added the communication was especially important because the fire was a weeks-long event causing several disruptions over an extended time. Some communities were told to evacuate, only to be told they could return to their homes. A sudden change in wind direction could cause another evacuation scramble, though, and that added to the feelings of frustration and uncertainty.

“Some members had to be displaced from their homes, not just once but multiple times,” she said. “Some didn’t know the status of their homes for days or weeks. It was a very trying period for all them.”

In some cases, members needed the communication even more than they needed the financial relief being offered.

“We heard a lot of stories,” Mendez said. “Sometimes they just needed someone to talk to because it was so overwhelming, what they had to deal with.”

Credit Union Relief Efforts 

In addition to financial relief, Patelco’s efforts included helping members access their already existing funds so they could make purchases for necessities like clothes, food, shelter or batteries.

To provide this access, Mendez said the CU worked to ensure ATMs in its network had cash available. Patelco also reimbursed members for any fees incurred using an outside ATM.

“When you’re in a crisis, having some cash available for the little things gives comfort,” Mendez said.

During the crisis, some financial innovations like direct deposit came in handy, she added, because they put funds directly into members’ accounts. But the financial tools to which most members wanted quick access were debit or credit cards because they made it easier to access cash. Mendez added that Patelco’s branches could instantly issue cards so members could more immediately pay for necessities.

“A lot of members went to our open branches to get instant-issue cards right then and there,” she said. “That, probably, was by far the most favorite technology available.”

Charitable Collaborators

Patelco also offered material support to local charities during relief efforts, in addition to the outreach and financial support.

The CU rented a bus to assist the local food bank as it packaged food, hygiene kits and supplies like phone chargers and batteries to deliver to shelters and families in need. It also matched $85,000 in fundraising which was donated to three participating non-profits: Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, Ceres Community Project and Redwood Empire Food Bank.

According to Mendez, Patelco’s charitable efforts to help members regain their financial footing during times of crisis falls in line with the credit union’s goal of protecting its members.

“I think we really have a mission to build our members’ financial health and well-being,” she said. “I think it’s important that Patelco helps our members — as gracefully as we can, help them through recovery, because the quicker they can recover, the more they are building their financial health again.”

While the toll of a natural disaster might still be overwhelming, Mendez added that it falls to the CU community to step forward and help members get back on their feet.

“We have these programs because it supports our mission and supports members when they need us most,” she said.

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About the Tracker 

The PYMNTS Credit Union Tracker™, powered by CO-OP Financial Services, serves as a bimonthly resource for staying up-to-date on the most significant trends and developments across the credit union market.

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