By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/9/2005 5:02:02 PM ET 2005-09-09T21:02:02

With the American Red Cross and other relief organizations focused on rushing food, medicine and basic resources to Hurricane Katrina’s victims, getting actual cash into their hands can become a task for unaffected and often out-of-state family and friends.

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But isn’t that what family and friends are for? Fortunately, several options exist to help people get cash to their unexpectedly stranded loved ones while insurance claims and government disaster relief forms are processed.

Well-known money transfer companies like Western Union and MoneyGram represent the quickest and easiest of these options. Both firms boast they can put money into recipients’ hands in about 10 minutes — nearly as efficiently as any ATM, debit or credit cards left behind in the rush to evacuate.

With offices throughout the country and services accessible online or by phone, both firms are willing to complete transfers using a security question in lieu of presenting personal identification — which many evacuees also left behind. These money transfers can be initiated and completed quickly and painlessly, once a sender and recipient agree on a pick-up location and security question and answer.

Obviously such speed and convenience have their price — one that varies with a sender’s location and the amount being sent. Higher amounts incur higher fees.

For instance, sending an online same-day transfer through MoneyGram.com costs an  estimated $55, but transfers are limited to $899. Sending a comparable amount through Western Union online normally would draw a charge of $75 to $81. But Western Union allows for larger transfers.

Western Union also is offering a 50 percent reduction in fees for domestic transfers to Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama through Sept. 30.

Concessions also are being offered throughout the banking system. Bank accounts that existed prior to the disaster remain electronically intact, even if the depositor’s branch office does not. So where an evacuee has an ATM card and access to a functioning ATM machine, banks are waiving any related “foreign” transaction fees. 

Banks are also trying to find “non-documentary ways” to help clients currently lacking proper identification gain access to their accounts. These include using signature comparisons and security questions (mother’s maiden name, etc.), in place of photo IDs. This is helpful for those who would prefer to receive money using more standard, but somewhat less immediate, bank wire transfers. 

Bank wire transfers do get money into the recipient’s hands or bank account.  And they are generally cheaper. For instance, Citibank charges clients a fixed rate of $25, with no restrictions on the amount being transferred.

Where large banks with national branch networks are involved, going to a friend or relative’s bank, preferably with their account number in hand, and making a deposit on their behalf will also work.

“Anyone can go into one of our branches regardless of the city or state and deposit money to any Bank One customer’s account,” says Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the Chicago-based bank.

For evacuees who landed in a town lacking a familiar banking facade, wire transfers may also be sent to any bank and used to open new, local accounts, providing instant access to the funds.

A rather cheap way to send instantly accessible cash is with U.S. Postal Service Money Orders. The fee ranges with the amount from 90 cents to $1.25. The maximum amount transferable by a single money order is $1,000, although multiple money orders may be purchased at one time.

Like personal checks, money orders need to be mailed to the recipient, and cashing them at a post office requires ID. The speed at which mail would find the evacuee depends on how quickly a forwarding address form was filed with the postal system — something easily done online or at any post office branch — and on how quickly that form is processed. Still, a postal money order would save some time over a mailed check. Once a personal check is received it takes several days for the funds to clear and become available for withdrawal. A money order can provide instant cash.

And cash, while not as essential as food, water and medical attention, is still pretty handy for hurricane victims unexpectedly restarting their lives in an unfamiliar town.

Gayle B. Ronan is a free-lance writer based in Chicago who covers personal-finance issues. Send questions or comments to gaylebronan@comcast.net.

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