Mississippi Banker Moves Family into Branch

Chevis Swetman is president of Peoples Bank in Biloxi, Miss., which lost six of 16 branches during Katrina. He is living with his family in a conference room in one of the branches, and is bringing in mobile offices to serve as temporary branches.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

South Mississippi was among the regions most damaged by Hurricane Katrina. One bank, based in Biloxi, had nearly half of its branches destroyed. Peoples Bank has been in one family for three generations. Chevis Swetman is the current president, and we reached him at the conference room of the bank's main branch in Biloxi.

And Mr. Swetman, hello.

Mr. CHEVIS SWETMAN (President, Peoples Bank): Hello.

MONTAGNE: I gather that you have actually been living there.

Mr. SWETMAN: I've got my office and my conference room is where my wife, my son and I are living.

MONTAGNE: Living as in you have mattresses on the floor?

Mr. SWETMAN: We've got these little thin sleep mats, and that's where we spend the night. It hasn't been that difficult. Generally, right after the sun sets we sort of lay our heads down on the pillow. And then the rest of the family gets up about 6, but I'm generally up anywhere from 2:30 to 5:00 in the morning, thinking about what I've got to do for tomorrow.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's probably a big thing to think about. How badly were your bank branches damaged?

Mr. SWETMAN: Well, we have 16 locations, and 10 of our 16 branches that are open. The ones that didn't open, we have--in Waveland we had eight feet of water in the facility. Bay St. Louis we had 12 feet of water in the facility. Pass Christian, which was one of the harder-hit areas, I've got--I had a vault, an ATM and a night depository knocked over.

MONTAGNE: When you talk about a vault that, you know, was knocked down, it was--What?--underwater?

Mr. SWETMAN: No, it was--not only was it underwater, it was completely washed through. The only thing that was showing was the vault door, and you probably had tons and tons of debris and rubble in front of the vault door, that we couldn't get out. We basically had to get a bulldozer to clean out the area, to be able to open the vault door. That vault had about four and a half feet of water in it. And everything that we had in that vault was basically contaminated currency, and we've been--we're talking to the Federal Reserve on how to handle contaminated currency, and we're still learning as we speak.

MONTAGNE: Your customers, scattered far and wide, what are they doing about getting the money that they have in your bank?

Mr. SWETMAN: Our first mission was to get cash back in circulation. We feel that getting cash back into people's hands, you know, is the start of commerce, and once people start spending and know they have access to money, you start the rebuilding effort. So if you were a non-bank customer and needed a check cashed, we'd give you $50, you know, upon proper ID. If you're a bank customer, we are trying to limit out withdrawals to $500. Now if you're on the Biloxi peninsula, there's nothing standing. I mean, there's no need for cash because you can't spend it anywhere.

MONTAGNE: But you're optimistic you can build this back, bring these banks back?

Mr. SWETMAN: Every place that we've had a building destroyed or contaminated or whatever the case may be, we're going to build back in each of those communities. I mean, that's very important to us. We're part of the Gulf Coast. Our fortunes rise and fall based on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When the Gulf Coast community does well, we do well. When something bad happens to the Gulf Coast community, we really don't have any diversification, so we're going to suffer along with them, sort of like I can now relate to the homeless that I might not have ever been able to relate to before.

MONTAGNE: Chevis Swetman is the president of Peoples Bank in Biloxi, Mississippi, speaking to us from his temporary home, the conference room in the bank.

Take care of yourself, and good luck.

Mr. SWETMAN: Thank you so much.

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