- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

AmSouth Bank, with about 15 branches in New Orleans, has a toll-free number for employees to call and report in.

“But one of the challenges, particularly in southern Louisiana and Mississippi, is that communications infrastructure is damaged. Many I think are finding phone service is a problem,” said Rick Swagler, spokesman for the Birmingham, Ala., bank.

AmSouth also is uncertain where many customers are. For anyone listening, the company is waiving ATM fees, allowing some loan customers to skip a payment and will keep paying dislocated workers.

“Those employees don’t need to worry about their job. We are going to take care of them,” Mr. Swagler said.

Despite best efforts, though, companies are struggling and still formulating plans to deal with the impact of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast Monday and has spread destruction across 90,000 square miles.

Federal officials had not fully assessed damages, instead focusing on saving lives, repairing breaks in New Orleans’ levees to stop flooding and establishing law and order.

But many people out of immediate danger found themselves with few possessions, little money and no home. They searched for familiar lifelines, like the mail.

The U.S. Postal Service set up locations yesterday for residents in stricken areas to receive monthly checks and medicine, but is suspending express mail and not accepting standard mail or periodicals heading to certain ZIP codes.

Pickup centers have been set up in Escatawpa, Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., and in Louisiana at Hammond, Covington, LaPlace and Des Allemands. A center is also planned for the Mobile, Ala., area, the Associated Press reported.

“We realize how important it is to get this mail through,” Deputy Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe told AP. Vital mail includes such items as Social Security and pension checks, paychecks, insurance forms and medicine shipped by mail.

Mr. Donahoe also urged people to contact the post office with new addresses, even if temporary.

“Change your address, the mail will follow you,” he said.

The federal government also had to come up with a backup plan to pay workers — more than half a million federal employees are paid through the Agriculture Department’s National Finance Center, which is now under water in New Orleans.

“We don’t have any information lost, and we’ll be prepared to run operations from Philadelphia until we’re able to get back to New Orleans,” Agriculture Department spokesman Ed Loyd told AP.

Still, a natural disaster that may leave tens of thousands homeless or wandering for months is new territory for many companies, and they remain uncertain where to send some information.

“That’s a complicated issue we are working through right now,” Mr. Swagler said.

AmSouth, with about 200 branches in Florida, had experience with natural disasters. Other companies also were prepared.

Whitney National Bank’s senior management team relocated from New Orleans to Houston as part of a disaster-recovery plan that includes transferring computer and check-processing services to Chicago and Atlanta.

Others, though, are scrambling to find new locations for their operations so they can continue functioning, turning a profit and paying workers.

“Every type of business from Fortune 500s to sole proprietors, they are all trying to relocate [from New Orleans],” said Scott Thompson, chief executive at Network Technology Group, a Baton Rouge, La., company that operates a disaster recovery center. The center, with 40,000 square feet, functions as a makeshift office, with spare cubicles and power from a generator.

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans is trying to run a newspaper out of the office, and more companies are knocking at the door.

“We have about 200-plus people at our facility right now, and as many as I can take and make arrangements for I will take,” Mr. Thompson said, noting that he was setting up trailers in his parking lot.

“The companies from New Orleans, they’re not going back for months,” he said.

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