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Banks give access to evacuees

Some have accounts at flooded, closed banks in New Orleans

Hurricane evacuee Henry Barnes fills out an application for employment with UTA during a job fair at Camp Williams.
Hurricane evacuee Henry Barnes fills out an application for employment with UTA during a job fair at Camp Williams.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

New Orleans evacuee Henry Barnes only has a few dollars left in his wallet, even though his former employer is still depositing paychecks directly into his bank account.

The only problem is Barnes is now living at Camp Williams in Bluffdale, Utah, while his checking account is at a New Orleans bank that is now flooded and closed.

Similar situations have left many hurricane evacuees wondering how to get their money after losing identification and ATM cards while evacuating the hurricane-ravaged region, said Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association.

"I don't think that anybody should expect this to be simple or easy," Headlee said. "We'll try to make it as easy as possible, but it's just a complicated issue."

But Headlee added that Utah banks are pulling together new procedures to handle the evacuees who now need to cash Social Security checks, get money transferred and access remote accounts.

The biggest obstacle, Headlee said, is that many of the banks controlling access to accounts are under water, without electricity and without employees, who fled along with other residents. Getting in touch with the banks to verify identity and fund balances has been easier in the past few days, he said, but was a trial at first when no one was in Louisiana to answer the phones.

Now, each Utah bank branch has a list of numbers to contact someone from each of the Louisiana-based banks.

Making things even more difficult, many of the evacuees only have their Camp Williams identification when they go to cash checks.

Rob Brough, senior vice president of marketing for Zions Bank, said that National Guard identification is good enough for evacuees to open an account at all Utah's Zions Bank locations. Although getting money from remote accounts does take a couple extra calls, Brough said evacuees should not worry that their funds are missing.

"Their money is safe, it's in the system," he said. "The banks back there have done a phenomenal job in being able to get back up and operational."

Banks such as Zions and Wells Fargo have also waived all ATM fees for evacuees and fees for electronic wire transfers. Both banks will also take Social Security or other government checks without having to call the bank of origin.

"It's a difficult enough time for them so we want to be sure that we're making this as painless as possible," Brough said.

But Lisa Doiron, spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, said the banks are also trying to protect themselves while relaxing requirements for evacuees. While Wells Fargo will accept only one form of identification from evacuees instead of the traditional two, Doiron said that identification must prove that they are from the hurricane region.

Bank employees have also been trained on how to identify a fake evacuee ID and how to safeguard against fraud.

"Tragedies like this bring out the best in people and they bring out out the worst in some people. There is opportunity for fraud, so people need to be really careful," she said. "We've looked at a lot of those situations, but right now we're just trying to do what's right for the evacuees."

Utah's remaining evacuees can also apply for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Tammy Kikuchi, spokeswoman for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said evacuees in Utah will also receive a yet to be determined amount of aid via direct deposit or mailed checks.

While local banks continue to try to hook up evacuees with their accounts, Headlee said the problem of mortgages, car loans and other financial issues may not get resolved for a while.

Some lenders have granted waivers and grace periods for payments, but Headlee said evacuees should be making calls to individual lenders to ensure their credit is not being hurt by late payments.

"The last thing you want to be doing is making payments on a car that's back in New Orleans under water," he said. "This is very disruptive, and they're just going to have to work this out."