Amid California Wildfires, FIs And Payment Services Offer Help

Payment services providers and financial institutions are beginning their work in helping people recover from the California wildfires — with those disaster responses informed by experiences in previous wildfires and recent hurricanes.

Visa, for instance, has launched its “Back to Business” tool in areas hit by the California wildfires, which as of Monday morning (November 19) were blamed for 77 deaths (with about 1,000 people still missing). The tool functions as what Visa describes as a “dynamic directory that identifies when an impacted small business has successfully processed a Visa transactions following a natural disaster, helping consumers locate and support these small businesses.” In the area impacted by the Woolsey Fire — it and the Camp Fire continue to burn — there are some 38,000 businesses, according to data from Visa.

Both Visa and Mastercard have announced donations to the American Red Cross for wildfire relief. Mastercard also said it is waiving “any interchange related to donations through Jan. 15  to specific charities” that include not only the Red Cross but such groups as Doctors Without Borders, Mercy Corp and the International Rescue Committee, among others. And like Visa, Mastercard will use its payments-related data to help with recovery efforts.

In a statement, Mastercard said it is “working closely with FEMA to share information on which stores, gas stations, hotels and ATMs are up and running so that the organization has the information it needs to help support communities in crisis.”

Banks and credit unions are also taking part in relief efforts via payment-related offerings. “US Bank, for example, is allowing people to make Red Cross Disaster Relief contributions at their ATMs through the end of the year,” according to one report. “Golden 1 Credit Union’s Community Emergency Relief Program offers payment options on existing loans and short-term loans of up to $5,000 for wildfire victims.”

Corporate America Family Credit Union, for its part, said that its members can apply for fixed-rate loans of up to $5,000 to help members in declared disaster areas get back on track.

The California wildfires, which experts say are the largest in state history — and which will not be contained until the end of the month, according to reports on Monday — are only the latest U.S. disasters to which financial institutions and payment services providers have had to respond. And those responses can go far beyond loans and immediate forms of relief.

Those efforts include the use of digital technology, and help for financial institutions to assist and retain customers in the wake of a disaster — an important, often challenging task, given that many disasters (as will certainly be the case with the ongoing California wildfires) result in towns being abandoned and residents picking up their lives and going elsewhere.

As described in the November/December Credit Union Tracker™ from PYMNTS, Citizens Equity First Credit Union (CEFCU) of Peoria, Illinois recently announced that it would work with technology provider Stakana Analytics to pilot the company’s predictive analytics platform. The platform uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to quickly review a member’s behavior and relay to the CU the most effective way to engage with and retain them, based on their recent transaction activity.

As PYMNTS has also documented, the relief effort from the payments world can take a significant amount of time — as will no doubt be the case with the long recovery from the California wildfires. After Hurricane Michael, for instance, Innovations Federal Credit Union of Panama City, Florida, for one, is helping members get back on their feet by offering a hurricane assistance loan program and waiving fees, according to a PYMNTS report.

One month after the hurricane made landfall, recovery efforts remain a tall task, said Innovations CEO David Southall. Some CUs have been forced to close branches, and their employees are addressing recovery efforts of their own. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Southall told PYMNTS in a recent interview. “We’re over a month out now and [the community] is still unrecognizable.”

Once the wildfires in California are extinguished will come years of recovery, an effort that will involve various types of assistance from banks, credit unions and payments services providers.