Written by Diane Coffey
Last fall, a number of volunteers from the American Red Cross Eastern Pennsylvania Region supported an emergency call center located in Philadelphia. That call center took many calls from areas of the south affected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, as well as Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria. This is volunteer Diane Coffey’s story:
Being the calm voice connecting with someone in the midst of a disaster feels like a hand taking hold with reassurance, ‘we got you – we’ll take care of you.’
During one devastating week of the historic 2017 hurricane season, September 16 to September 21, a total of 184,139 hurricane related phone calls flooded the National American Red Cross emergency call number. To help handle the volume overflow, the Red Cross set up Regional Volunteer Call Centers to assist Texas residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and direct Florida and Puerto Rico residents to resources as Hurricane Irma and Maria hit. Regional Volunteer Call Centers answered 52,371 of the calls during this crisis week.
These are more than just numbers with a ‘wow factor’, they represent the services remote volunteers from all over the country helped deliver to clients during real time disaster recovery operations. Hurricane survivors were connected to volunteers who would listen and provide information: shelter and food pantry locations, transportation, or partner organizations offering crisis cleanup and home repairs.
As a Philadelphia Disaster Call Center volunteer, I never left my home. I used my personal cell phone to answer calls and used my home computer to access multiple Red Cross resource applications. At the end of my professional work day, I signed into the Red Cross Call Center System for a four-hour shift.
One hurricane phone conversation will forever remind me why I volunteer with the American Red Cross. A Hurricane Irma survivor calling from Florida was running out of food. As we talked, I learned the woman was visually impaired and did not have a computer. Even if she had access, there was likely no power in her house.
From a Red Cross hurricane resource listing, (updated and distributed to all volunteers in real time as new information became available), I identified three nearby emergency food pantries which she might be able to reach. But our call took place on Friday night and two of the pantries would not be open until Monday. I was able to find the phone number for the third food bank, Second Harvest, and suggested that she call them.
Despite the client’s visual impairment, she was able to slowly write down the information in hopes that her assistant could pick up the food. As we talked, she admitted that her roof was leaking rain water. She needed a tarp. Again, based on her location I offered a Crisis Cleanup Hotline phone number for assistance.
The length of this call undoubtedly exceeded the average time for a disaster related issue. In this case, I felt time could stand still until the client got the information she needed.