As Irma approaches, mortgage industry doubles down on disaster prep

Mortgage companies in Florida are bracing themselves for the potential landfall of Hurricane Irma, which has followed close on the heels of Hurricane Harvey.

Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, is currently making its way through the Caribbean and threatening to hit Florida as early as Saturday.

Mortgage companies in the state are channeling Harvey relief programs to prepare for the possible storm, with some taking extra steps as Irma promises potentially greater damage.

"I think you are going to see more evacuation than you would normally see," said JP Kelly, president of loan origination system provider OpenClose in West Palm Beach.

"This is supposed to be the most powerful hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean and it has some potential for real destruction, although we still hope and pray it's going to curve out into the ocean and become a fish storm."

That being said, mortgage executives in Florida are generally well-versed in keeping their business running through hurricanes, and if they have offices in Texas they have a recent disaster plan already drawn up.

Waterstone Mortgage Corp., with 12 branches in Florida and four in Texas, is tapping disaster relief and continuity plans they used in response to Harvey.

"Our goal is to protect the borrower and their collateral. The same process that we did with Hurricane Harvey and the impact is very similar to what we're doing for the state of Florida," said Kerry Wirth, chief operating officer at Waterstone.

"From a business standpoint, we are reviewing loan files and avoiding any disruptions to business because we don’t know the affected areas quite yet," said Wirth.

Waterstone is examining loan files for recent closings and those expected to close within the next week.

FBC Mortgage, a family-run business in Orlando, as of mid-Wednesday afternoon hadn't yet had any delays in loan closings. But it was expecting to see some as the hurricane approached the way it did when Harvey recently hit its Texas offices.

FBC's headquarters in Florida was still open Wednesday afternoon but it was preparing for a possible closure for safety reasons.

"We've moved groups before from Orlando all the way to a different state location," said FBC Chief Financial Officer Dyron Watford.

The company was leaving evacuation decisions to employees' discretion, calling it a "family decision."

"The operational part of this is easy. The real life part of it is complicated," he said.

As they await news on Irma's impact, Florida mortgage companies made note of technology's ability to keep businesses running during natural disasters.

"The advantage we have with technology today is that most employees do have laptops, we can take those laptops home. They can connect to the internet. Frankly, much of this can be done on your cellphone," said Tom Knapp, Waterstone's chief information officer.

As part of its continuity plan, Waterstone will ensure properties in affected areas are deemed safe and habitable before proceeding with loan purchases.

"A certified appraiser must visit the borrower's property and we have to make sure it's structurally sound, it's habitable, and there was no impact to the property such as flood damage," explained Wirth.

As of now, Florida's mortgage companies remain on standby pending news on Irma's path.
"It's obviously too soon to make a decision and I guess the most conservative approach would be to stop all closings in the state of Florida, which we're not going to do; we're going to wait to see what the impact is," said Wirth.

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