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    Where government aid and emotions collide, call center volunteers bring empathy to hurricane recovery mission



    Story by Kerry Solan 

    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District

    The conference room in downtown Portland was set up like any other training event: Logistics employees wheeled out gray chairs in bunches of six and tucked them under rows of roll-away tables with honey-brown wood-laminate tops.
    But, in the corner, one table would eventually host a coffee maker that would slowly drip on the carpet over the following month – a testament to all the caffeine consumed by 30 employees as they answered thousands of calls from people desperate for help after Hurricane Ian.
    Harriet Grenier woke up in her Fort Myers, Florida, home to the sound of dripping.
    “It wasn’t the rain outside – it was in my bedroom,” she said.
    She knew that Hurricane Ian, which scraped away at Florida days earlier, caused a leak in front of her closet where she tucked away her wheelchair at night. But this new leak was over her electric hospital bed.
    “It was raining over my bed – and we couldn’t move the bed,” said Grenier, who is disabled and lives with her husband, who is also disabled. “We didn’t have anyone to help.”
    The merciless, hungry hurricane winds that ate away at Grenier’s roof in Fort Myers also razed homes, eradicated roads and ended the lives of more than 100 citizens.
    “Hurricane Ian scared the living crap out of me,” she said. “I’d never experienced something like this – something so powerful – before.”
    In the long days following the storm, survivors took stock of what was left – and little was left untouched by water and wind. For thousands like Grenier, the Category 4 storm’s damage compromised a basic human necessity: shelter.
    The wind shear of hurricanes can peel back shingles and rip off roof tiles, while flying debris can punch holes through roofs. Hurricane roof damage is such a common problem that the Federal Emergency Management Agency calls on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide a temporary fix.
    Operation Blue Roof, which USACE manages on behalf of FEMA, has officially been in place since 2004, when four hurricanes – Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne – battered Florida within a six-week window. The “blue roof” mission provides free installation of a fiber-reinforced sheeting to cover hurricane-damaged roofs until homeowners can arrange permanent repairs. Homeowners can begin obtaining services online, at a designated sign-up center, or through the call center, which is based out of Portland, Oregon.
    USACE began standing up the Operation Blue Roof call center before Hurricane Ian made landfall: The simple conference room was transformed into a call center. A communications team began setting up the 1-888-ROOF-BLU phone lines. Experts who had worked the blue roof mission after previous hurricanes came to train the employees who would answer phone calls.
    Trainers warned the newly-minted call center workers: The long hours – 12 hours a day, seven days a week – would be grueling. But the emotional weight of talking to people who had just lived through a deadly weather event? That would be hard, too.
    For Tim Stovall, the torrent of calls that came into the Operation Blue Roof call center was another storm surge caused by Hurricane Ian.
    Waves of people – frustrated, fatigued and needing help – called in. According to call center Manager Lance Lindsay, about 30 call center employees fielded more than 2,000 calls a day.
    Stovall volunteered to work at the call center, temporarily stepping away from his position as chief of the Mission Support Office at Portland District. He estimated that more than 80% of the callers to whom he spoke were over the age of 65.
    “They were desperate to save their homes,” he said. After hurricanes, roof leaks can cause wooden support structures to rot, introduce mold and mildew, and destroy insulation and drywall. “(These callers) could often buy the tarp they needed for their roofs, but they couldn’t climb on their roofs to install them.”
    The call center process has been whittled down over the years to be quick and efficient. On average, it takes about 8-11 minutes for a homeowner to sign up for the Blue Roof program through the call center. Employees read from a limited script that describes the service to homeowners and breaks down some of the legal jargon that comes hand-in-hand with giving the government permission to access their private property.
    Despite the streamlined process, Stovall was sometimes on the phone with homeowners for more than 30 minutes because sometimes they would weep. Sometimes, they would yell. But mostly, they would be grateful to speak to someone who could help.
    “Some of these people had just gone through one of the most terrible experiences of their lives,” he said. “You can’t underestimate the power of listening to someone in that situation.”
    One caller had lost her husband two months before the storm. She was 78 and had no idea what to do, or where to start.
    There was the man who was burying his wife in Michigan as the storm raged – when he returned, his home had been torn apart.
    Another caller was a woman whose husband had experienced a stroke just two weeks before the hurricane flayed her roof - she was struggling to imagine how she’d get through the weeks ahead.
    And then Harriet Grenier, whose electric hospital bed was under the leak in her roof: “You just feel stuck, and you don’t know what to do.”
    While the Operation Blue Roof Call Center focused on providing a temporary blue roof covering, the call center volunteers were often able to point homeowners in the direction of other local agencies that could help with anything from free transportation to free hot meals.
    “We were moved to help people any way we could,” said Stovall.
    Four weeks after Hurricane Ian made landfall, volunteers fielded the final calls trickling in after answering more than 80,000 calls from homeowners in Florida, and then turned off the lights in the call center. The unassuming conference room will be used again for the call center, after the inevitable hurricanes in the years to come.
    After the last volunteer left, a small team of logistics employees descended on the room, stacking and storing the chairs in storage closets. Then, they rolled away the tables, revealing the dark coffee stain, its hue and size a silent boast that so many had been helped from here.



    Date Taken: 11.11.2022
    Date Posted: 12.30.2022 16:59
    Story ID: 436126
    Location: PORTLAND, OREGON, US

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