ATMs provide calm before the storm

In the wake of a disaster, credit card networks may not communicate, but cash still talks. Which is why the American Red Cross website lists "small bills and change" among 14 basic supplies that should be in any emergency preparedness kit.

With this fact in mind, and with the massive Halloween "Frankenstorm," Hurricane Sandy, bearing down upon them, East Coast residents from North Carolina to Maine made a trip to the ATM for emergency cash over the weekend — just in case.

Even typically blasé New Yorkers who said the media had gotten carried away with "post-apocalyptic coverage" made sure they had more cash than usual in their wallets.

"[E]veryone loses a lot of money when this city shuts down so it's going to be up and running ASAP," said Sarah Rose, a high school teacher from Red Hook, explaining the absence of panic running rampant from Brooklyn to the Bronx.

However, an unperturbed outlook didn't keep Rose from hitting the ATM for a little more ready money than usual. "I do think it was pretty typical sentiment that one precaution to take was to have a bit of extra cash on hand," she said.

Apparently so. Cardtronics Inc. spokesperson Nick Pappathopoulos said weekend activity at the company's ATMs in storm-affected states took a double-digit jump in percentage over the previous month. He said CITs would be busy restocking machines on Monday to keep ahead of demand — weather conditions permitting.

In a statement, Jim Park, president and CEO of Credit Union 24, said the decision about stocking each ATM was up to the owner of the machine. But, he said, most would have made sure they were prepared for unusually high cash demands. "In these circumstances, it is likely that many financial institutions stocked their machines so they will be able to meet the emergency needs of consumers," he said.

This becomes especially important when ATMS become the only place to get cash. On Monday, banks and credit unions in Hurricane Sandy's way remained closed as management advised employees to stay put for the duration of the storm. According to Wells Fargo spokesperson Richele Messick, more than 200 of the FI's locations on the East Coast were closed on Monday morning and more still were expected to close early in the afternoon. "But our ATMs are fully operational," she said.

It's anybody's guess how many FIs will remain closed Tuesday and beyond, with widespread power outages expected across the Eastern Seaboard. It's also impossible at this point to say how the storm will affect ATM availability; as New York ad executive Chris Jordan correctly observed, "if the power goes out, you can't get anything out of the ATMs."

With exceptions. Both Park and Pappathopoulos said that even in the case of power outages, consumers might find operational ATMs at businesses — both retailers and FIs  — that had generator backup. As long as networks are working.

For those who stocked up on cash along with water, food, flashlights and the other ten emergency basics (including the indispensable multi-purpose tool), network operations will be one less thing to worry about. There's still plenty to worry about in the midst of a Halloween hurricane of monstrous proportions.

For more on this topic, visit the networking/connectivity research center.

photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

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