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Nation's Co-ops and Credit Unions Respond to Katrina

By Jane Livingston

SEPT. 11, 2005.The national disaster left by Hurricane Katrina may have temporarily overwhelmed some emergency response systems, but it also galvanized many grassroots organizations. Today, these groups from all around the United States are distributing direct aid and hope for the future. They're housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and rebuilding the telecommunications infrastructure. In the words of Mary Robinson, former President of the Republic of Ireland, "If people are to survive, they need our action, not our tears, our practical, downright problem-solving help, not our wordless horror." While the tears and horror cannot be prevented, they are not stopping people from pitching in. Some of these people are members and employees of the nation's cooperatives and credit unions. It isn't surprising that these member-owned and controlled businesses have been able to respond so rapidly to the need for human and other resources. After all, that's what co-ops are, groups of people organized to meet a common need. What they have accomplished less than two weeks is heartwarming, and welcome good news.

Farmers Dig In for the Long Haul
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives is working with their member farmers throughout the area to stabilize farms and homes devastated by the storm, and to provide shelter, basic supplies and financial assistance to victims of Katrina. "We now have farmers who have lost all their crops and markets. Many have lost houses and means of livelihood," said Federation president Ralph Paige. The national Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF) has named the Federation a prime point of contact for the Katrina Cooperative Recovery Fund which it formed within days of the hurricane's barrage. CDF will direct 100% of the funds donated to contact organizations. "For more than 40 years the Federation has brought economic justice and economic development to this part of the South," said CDF Executive Director Elizabeth Bailey. "Just as it has helped poor farmers hold their land, grow and market their crops, secure affordable housing and obtain financing through credit unions, the federation will be there to help rebuild from this monumental disaster."

Rural Utility Co-ops Mobilize
"While things are bad, that's when cooperative family members rise to the occasion…We will survive because we have a network that believes in coming to aid of others," said Ron Stewart of the Electric Power Associations of Mississippi, two days after the hurricane hit. Since then, nearly 8,000 employees of the nation's rural electric cooperatives, which serve 37 million people in 47 states, have come to the aid of their neighbors. They are helping to raise the 50,000 downed utility poles and restore power to more than half a million ratepayers. Members of the National Rural Telecommunication Cooperatives brought satellite Internet service to isolated hurricane victims, and at least one emergency relief station in Covington, Louisiana, on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain. The site also included computers to enable evacuees to locate friends and family.

Credit Unions
Credit unions and credit union leagues in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama are working restore order among 86 credit unions that had reported damages in 200 locations. Members of several Katrina-struck credit unions already have access to their accounts through credit unions in other states, through the credit unions' shared branching network, and more are gaining access every day. As of September 9th, industry spokespeople said there was a potential to see more than 100 credit unions damaged. In New Orleans alone, 54 credit unions were destroyed and almost as many more suffered some damage. Damages range from minor flooding to total devastation, and cost estimates are already in the millions of dollars, and expected to rise. Staff--many of them personally affected by the hurricane and flooding--began working immediately after the storm to identify insurance coverage, begin the claims paying process, and bring up their websites and online lending functions. Credit union employees in other states have set up relief services for them and put out an invitation to house their colleagues from Mississippi and Louisiana.

Food Co-ops Act Fast
The National Cooperative Grocers Association includes 99 independent co-op members who operate 120 storefronts in 31 states and have combined annual sales of more than $626 million. Robynn Schrader, NCGA Director of Marketing and Communications reports that midway through the second week, more than $50,000 had been raised that they knew of, mostly in food co-op check-out jars, and the number was continually climbing. "Many co-ops are collecting donations and/or matching them for the CDF Katrina Fund...several are holding fundraising events over the next couple of weeks," Schrader said. She noted that Vermont co-ops were among the first to take action, sending several pallets of goods down very early in the disaster. The Vermont Credit Union League's weekly online update said, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by this tragedy."

For more information go to the web sites of the organizations mentioned. To contribute to the CDF Katrina Recovery Fund, go to

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