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A Thing

ATM industry changed, lessons learned after Katrina

By Tracy Kitten LogoThis story was originally published on, Aug. 29, 2006; reprinted with permission. © 2006 NetWorld Alliance LLC. All rights reserved.
A snapshot of Katrina

  • Katrina hit the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, 2005.
  • It was one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the region, causing severe damage to the coastlines of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
  • Katrina developed into a Category 5 hurricane, producing winds of 160 mph.
  • The city of New Orleans sustained severe damage after levees separating Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne succumbed to rising water. Eighty percent of the city flooded.
  • Katrina is estimated to have caused $81.2 billion in damage - the United States' most expensive hurricane to date - and killed just under 2,000 people.
  • Soon after Katrina, the ATM industry began to reach out. The ATM Industry Association raised $13,000 for people affiliated with the industry who were impacted by Katrina. ATM Africa, Nautilus Hyosung, ATM Solutions Australasia, Palm Desert National Bank, RBS Lynk, ATMIA Conferences and ATMIA all donated money to the fund. Families, including three affiliated with Long Beach, Miss.-based Triton Systems, benefited from the funds raised by ATMIA.
  • Triton's Katrina Fund raised $650,000. Donations from ATMIA were included in the fund.

For Maria Miller, Aug. 29, 2005, began like most days during hurricane season along the Gulf Coast.

"I was like everybody else," she said. "I thought it was another storm and everything was going to be fine."

Miller, a seven-year employee of Long Beach, Miss.-based Triton Systems, decided to stay home with her family. In Waveland, Miss., dealing with hurricanes is a way of life. But there was nothing typical about Hurricane Katrina, as Miller and others along the Gulf Coast soon learned.

"After the storm, when I walked up the street, I realized how serious it was," Miller said.

The farther Miller and her husband walked down U.S. Highway 90, the more clear the magnitude of devastation became.

Miller lost a lot. Her home was damaged from the two-and-a-half feet of water that consumed it. Most of her belongings were lost, and she and her family had to pick up the pieces of what remained and move forward.

Worst of all, Miller's mother, who lived in a neighboring community, drowned in her home during Katrina.

"This is a hard month for me," she said of the one-year anniversary. "But I think that everything that's happened since the storm has been positive. I would do a lot of things differently. I would have left and made my mom leave, but you can't go back. You can only move forward."

Positive change

Miller said Triton's support, as well as the outpour of support from the ATM industry in general, had a huge impact on her and other Triton employees. Beyond the ability to get back to work, Miller said the emotional support provided by Triton and its staff made all the difference.

Since Katrina, Triton has worked to help its employees, both financially and emotionally. Triton did not anticipate its employees' post-Katrina needs. The company now has integrated recovery-assistance initiatives into its overall emergency management plan.

Not many in the ATM industry felt Katrina's wrath like Triton, but most did feel Katrina's after-effects.

Diebold Inc., although based in North Canton, Ohio, has spent the last year working to tweak its disaster-recovery plans. After Katrina, the collapse of communications along the Gulf Coast was only one problem, said Ron Shepard, Diebold's Vice President of Service for North America.

Getting technicians and parts to the affected areas, especially those where water and hazardous waste abounded, posed even greater troubles. It was a result the company had never dealt with on such a grand scale.

"Before Katrina we had a couple of years of very serious hurricanes in Florida, and we had considered things like, How do we get cars to a certain area? How should we handle dispatching? How do we rotate our technicians to make sure that all of our sites are back online as soon as possible?" Shepard said.

"So from that perspective, we had a lot in place already. But I think what became specifically different with Katrina was the multiple damage over three states. And the biggest difference was the hazardous-materials preparedness we had to deal with. We never had to deal with that before."

In areas where water contaminated with debris and gas stood for long periods, recovery crews had to be mindful of hazardous materials.

Cleaning and repairing facilities that had been submerged in water for several weeks required certain environmental precautions - precautions that weren't the norm for the financial industry. Diebold hired an outside consultant who specializes in hazardous materials to train employees about recovery and clean-up efforts after a disaster.

"Parts of the training included, for instance, if you get in an area that looks like it's been under water for a long time, then you wear rubber boots. And in areas with mold, you want to take special precautions," he said.

"In Katrina, the hazardous materials thing was something we had to spend a lot of time educating our customers about. At first, they wouldn't always understand that we couldn't just go in and clear out equipment in a branch, because it could be contaminated."

Now Diebold, which was one of the industry's first to initiate across-the-board training for hazardous-materials safety, is preparing for other natural disasters - like the potential for a bird flu pandemic.

"In Katrina, we got ahead of everyone by having all of our inoculations, tetanus shots, etc.," Shepard said. "If ATMs or branches have to be serviced or taken out, we want to be ready, regardless of the disaster."

Bankers bounce back

For financial institutions (FIs), Katrina was devastating for a number of reasons. Even if branches were still standing, most in the Gulf region were offline for several days, if not weeks.

Clay Savoy, Senior Vice President and Operations Officer for First State Bank of the Florida Keys, said the storm prompted his bank to invest in mobile units that take cash to the masses.

First State, which has $550 million in assets, 13 branches and a network of 32 ATMs, is located in the Florida Keys, another hurricane-prone region. It wasn't hit as hard by Katrina as it was Hurricane Wilma, which came through Florida in October, but it's learned lessons from both catastrophes, Savoy said.

"Because we live in that environment in the Keys, everything we do is geared toward trying to minimize the effects that a storm might have, which includes trying to get back our channels of connectivity," Savoy said.

"We've had those things for years - wireless ATMs as well as regularly connected ATMs. We have a mobile ATM that we use for events, and we can use that in emergency situations. But it's wireless, which means it uses cell-phone technology."

After Wilma, cell-phone towers and land-lines went in and out because of power outages and shortages, he said. The bank's new mobile units use cellular connectivity, which poses a few problems, Savoy said, but it's the best option available. So the bank is considering additional options.

"Since Katrina and Wilma, we're looking at stocking an extra machine of our most common type of machine so we can get in, replace the ATM and get it up running very quickly.

The problem we have is that we have many different [ATM] models. Some are drive-up and some are stand-alone." Knowing the best model to keep on-hand for replacement is an issue the bank is still working through, Savoy said.

Unforeseen advantages of new tech

With hurricane season here, the industry is taking steps to prepare like it never has before. And new technology is playing a new role. Savoy said First State Bank of the Florida Keys is spreading the word about the advantages deposit-imaging offers during widespread disasters.

After Katrina, many deployers and consumers lost unprecedented amounts of cash at ATMs from envelope deposits of cash and check. Dealing with raided vaults will likely still pose problems. But with deposit-imaging, which posts cash and check deposits to accounts in near real-time, FIs can have a record.

From a deployer perspective, assessing ATM damage post-Katrina was a serious challenge. It took many deployers, especially those in New Orleans, weeks to access some of their machines. And by the time they got to those sites, many ATMs were missing or raided.

Ron Wischan, an ATM deployer in Louisiana, signed up for Switch Commerce's phone-based terminal management system, VoiceTMS, about a year before Katrina. But the system's full benefits weren't realized until shortly after the storm, Wischan said, when he was able to link to his ATMs and assess their status over the phone.

"The initial attraction to Switch was their Web-site feature. The TMS voice feature was a nice add-on, but it wasn't something we really thought much about until Katrina.

"We did utilize it to check the status of the terminal, to add a new terminal by phone, etc.," Wischan said. VoiceTMS "was really our only link when we were bringing our terminals back on."

The driving idea behind Switch's VoiceTMS is to allow independent deployers to quickly launch new ATM sites. Switch Commerce says a deployer could have an ATM up and running within four or five minutes of placement.

Switch offers the same feature online, but the voice system is more accessible for deployers in the field. For Wischan, the voice system proved critical. "The success of any business depends on how quickly it can get back on its feet," he said, "and the TMS feature gave us a supreme advantage. With TMS, that was the only way we could tell what was still up and running."

Wischan's company, ETM Inc., has a fleet of about 300 ATMs. Most are located in convenience stores, night clubs, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. On average, ETM's ATMs total between 75,000 and 80,000 transactions a month. About 25% of his company's machines were lost to flooding during Katrina; others were hit by vandals.

"We had a few more ATMs before Katrina, but we are pretty close to where we were prior to the storm," Wischan said. "Some locations we had before Katrina will never come back, but we added some new ones."

Triton's Maria Miller is not talking about rebuilding her ATM portfolio, but like Wischan, she has come a long way since Katrina. She chooses to focus on the positive changes she's made, rather than dwelling on what she's lost.

"Our house is coming along," she said, "but it was livable from the start. I never had to live in a FEMA trailer, since my husband is a trim carpenter. Me and my family are thankful for what we have - each other."

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Article published in issue number 060902

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