The McDonald's at 6 Water St. in New York City has been shut down for more than two months, as it was one of the first buildings struck by surges of sea water from Hurricane Sandy. The ATM inside, if it still exists, has been inaccessible ever since.

But the machine has shown up for weeks afterwards on some ATM locator smartphone apps, which did not notice the machine's absence in the immediate aftermath of the storm. These apps, such as the MasterCard ATM Hunter and the PNC Finder apps for the iPhone, use GPS data to direct consumers to the nearest machine. They display the machine's location on a map and, in the case of the PNC app, over an augmented-reality view from the phone's camera.

"Five years ago, ATM locator software wasn't around, so it is a new technology we have to stay on top of," says Cardtronics spokesman Nick Pappathopoulos.

To that end, Houston, Texas-based Cardtronics, which operates nearly 63,000 retail ATMs throughout the U.S., recently linked its internal ATM monitoring software with its external locator feed, Pappathopoulos says.

"I wouldn't say it gives us the capability of real-time updates, but it definitely allows us to refresh the locator app on a daily basis," Pappathopoulos says. "If it was real-time, a customer might see a message that an ATM they go to is down at the moment, but it may just need paper or cash, and it could easily be up and running in just the 10 minutes it might take for the customer to get to the machine."

Timely updates are becoming more critical as many businesses remain closed or under repairs after being struck by Hurricane Sandy on the east coast and tornados that recently ripped through southern states.

Regardless of how quickly banks, card networks or ATM providers can update their locator software, there is a plenty of work to do related to ATMs in the aftermath of a disaster, says MasterCard spokesperson Beth Kitchener.

"The location services team communicates with banks in the affected region to request those banks remove ATMs that no longer function while also adding temporary portable or mobile ATM locations," Kitchener says.

MasterCard also relies on customers or merchant clients to provide feedback through the card network's ATM Hunter application to report ATM locations that are no longer functioning, Kitchener adds. MasterCard removed the 6 Water St. ATM from its app after it was notified by a reporter last week.

"The location services team frequently reviews this feedback and coordinates with our sponsors to update the ATM data," Kitchener says.

Generally, MasterCard's ATM Hunter application is updated when customers and processors update ATM locations through a self-service online tool called MasterCard Connect, she says.

The ATM Hunter application also has undergone updates to allow consumers to search for ATMs that accept EMV chip-based smartcards or to find surcharge-free ATM locations, Kitchener says.

Because keeping ATMs operating properly "is the lifeblood of our business," Pappathopoulos says Cardtronics has a nationwide service network prepared to provide support and maintenance as needed in parts of the country affected by severe weather.

"Of course, even though Cardtronics has a severe weather recovery plan at the ready, certain aspects are out of our control, such as passable roads, working data and communications networks or buildings surviving a storm," Pappathopoulos says.

Prior to the capability to link the internal network to the external locator software, Cardtronics dealt with "a fairly manual and labor-intensive process" in staying on top of ATM locator data after storms, Pappathopoulos says.

How quickly ATM locator data streams are updated often comes down to the amount of time it takes to determine why a particular ATM isn't transacting, and whether it's even possible to get a person on site to evaluate the location's near-term viability, Pappathopoulos says.

"In situations when law enforcement officials restrict access to storm- damaged communities, site evaluations can be easier said than done, for both Cardtronics and the retailer hosting our ATM," he says.

Because Cardtronics places its ATMs indoors at retail stores such as Target, 7-Eleven, CVS and Walgreens, many of the units rarely fall victim to the weather.

Cardtronics plans to update its ATM locator and Allpoint ATM locator applications when the national weather service calls for severe weather. The company also has to plan for cash supply issues and alert maintenance teams to support all Cardtronics and Allpoint surcharge-free network ATMs, Pappathopoulos says.

ATMs that survive bad storms, or those in other parts of the country not affected by bad weather, play a different role in the aftermath of disasters. They become locations for consumers to make donations to help devastated areas recover. 

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