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Banks work to get back on line in hurricane-ravaged areas

A picture taken on September 11, 2017 shows the rubbles from collapsed buildings on the French Caribbean island of Saint-Martin after it was hit by Hurricane Irma.

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

A week after one of the most powerful hurricanes in the past half-century pounded Caribbean islands and the southern United States, Canadian banks that operate in the affected regions are sorting through the destruction and working to restore essential services.

As airports and seaports begin to reopen to emergency services, basic supplies are starting to get through. But with electrical outages making it hard to use credit or debit cards, and banks working to restore data connections and repair damaged branches, many clients are reverting to cash and turning to banks to get it.

That has left Canadian banks working around the clock to fulfill a dual role: Securing employees' safety as the top priority, while also trying to ensure that customers and businesses have access to badly needed funds. They have waived certain banking fees, pushed back payment deadlines and extended low-interest loans.

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A team from Bank of Nova Scotia flew from Jamaica for the British Virgin Islands on Wednesday to assess the damage to its operations wrought by Hurricane Irma, bringing bags of food – but also laptops to help get basic banking services back on line.

"We're making progress every day," said Brendan King, Scotiabank's senior vice-president of international banking, in an interview from Jamaica. He oversees its Caribbean operations and more than 8,500 regional staff across the British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, Saint Martin and other islands, and flew in via Trinidad this week to co-ordinate the bank's response. "We're focusing on the basic needs right now of our staff and our teams, so water and tarpaulins and clothes, canned foods, biscuits, those types of things."

Canadian banks that do business in the Caribbean are well drilled in emergency protocols. But with the unusual severity of recent storms, spotty communications coverage, flooded roads and even local curfews have made it difficult to stay in touch with local staff.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Scotiabank had reached "about 99 per cent" of its employees who were affected, Mr. King said. "Now we're going house to house, we're finding the last ones, and – knock on wood – and our prayers are answered at this point that none of our staff have been injured, and no loss of life."

In preparation, the bank co-ordinated with authorities to board up branches and offices, and sent staff home or to shelters if necessary. "The region is, unfortunately, used to this type of thing," Mr. King said.

But that didn't stop the storms from breaching the walls of a small number of branches – "all windows blown out, a significant amount of water inside the branch," Mr. King said. As response teams clear broken glass and drain water, they are looking at the buildings' foundations, computer systems and electrical systems, which "for the most part, seem to be OK."

Only four of Scotiabank's 200 Caribbean branches have yet to re-open, but some are working on reduced hours with smaller staffs. The bank stocked its vaults and ATMs with extra cash in anticipation of the storms, but the region's banks have since imposed co-ordinated withdrawal limits to guard against shortages. "So we seem to be okay from a cash perspective," Mr. King said.

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Canada's five biggest banks are contributing financial aid to the Caribbean and southern United States, and have offered some financial help to clients whose lives have been uprooted. They have also separately pledged donations to relief efforts totalling $2-million (U.S.), and some branches are accepting Red Cross donations.

Bank of Montreal has reopened 11 of 17 branches in Florida, most of which sustained minimal damage, and has been working to ensure that clients have access to safety deposit boxes containing documents they need to file insurance claims.

Through its BMO Harris Bank subsidiary, the bank has 200 employees in Florida, including in hard-hit cities like Naples and Tampa. The bank had one customer who was almost in tears when she inquired about a car payment and had the deadline extended so she wouldn't pay a late fee. "She was very thankful of the human approach that we took as a business to the situation in Florida," said Emilio Cooper, head of retail sales and distribution for BMO Harris.

Toronto-Dominion Bank has reopened 87 of its 150 branches in Florida as well as 10 in South Carolina that had been closed. But it has also been stocking company vehicles with supplies, and relocated two mobile banks to the hardest-hit areas.

Royal Bank of Canada has also re-opened nearly all of its branches in the United States and Caribbean – the exceptions being branches in Naples and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and three others in St. Maarten, which are without power. Likewise, St. Maarten is the only one of seven Caribbean islands where Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce has yet to resume operations, after business was halted or disrupted at 25 branches.

Video: Ottawa will learn from Irma evacuation efforts, Freeland says (The Canadian Press)
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About the Authors
Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

Capital Markets Reporter

Christina Pellegrini is a reporter at The Globe and Mail and a regular contributor to Streetwise, covering capital markets, the exchange business and market structure.She writes about the capital markets divisions of BMO, CIBC and National Bank; independent brokerages such as Canaccord Genuity; and the Canadian operations of foreign dealers including JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Citigroup. More

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