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United Way All Hands on Deck Before, During and After Irma

Get a glimpse inside the organization's recent operations in response to the natural disaster.



Madison Mitchell, in foreground, the United Way's community resource manager, answers a call from a resident needing hurricane recovery information.

 

Linda Hafner clutches a handful of handwritten notes, among them a request for tree service, a need for a wellness check, a concern about a sewage leak.

“I gotta take care of that, pronto,” she says of the latter.

Hafner is vice president of the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee Counties’ 211 hotline. In typical times, that’s the number residents call for help with human service needs. But in times like these, Hafner, United Way President Cliff Smith, their staff and representatives of their partner agencies go into full-fledged disaster response mode. Collier County’s United Way plays a similar role.

They’re the voices on the other end of the phone coaching worried residents through Irma and its aftermath. In the room behind Hafner, at Lee County’s Emergency Operations Center, more than a dozen people are manning the 211 line, now the region’s hurricane hotline. During the peak, a rotating crew had been there 24/7 for four days straight.

“We’re trying to just be the hub of information and then to get it all back out to the community,” Hafner says.

In the call center, wall-length white boards contain countless pieces of information: utilities phone numbers, school closure updates, still-active shelters, FEMA’s main line, hotel availability.

By midday on Wednesday, the United Way representatives had fielded some 20,000 calls.

The place went online four days before Irma hit. The first task was to contact all 1,200 or so people on the county’s special needs shelter list to determine whether they needed to go to a shelter and whether they had transportation to get there. Then the calls started coming: Where can I get sandbags? Should we evacuate? What shelters are open? What should I bring? What about my pet?

They answered calls during the height of the storm, talking frightened people into finding safe rooms, staying calm, holding firm until emergency responders could get back on the roads.

“There were periods where there was nothing we could do but offer encouragement,” says Smith. “We just had to tell them to hang in there. That was challenging—we had elderly people in their homes, it was pitch black. ... We told them we’re here, we’ll talk you through it, and then we’ll call you back.”

The center had fielded calls about potentially dangerous situations—frail residents in an apartment building with no working elevator; elderly Medicaid recipients whose home meals weren’t being delivered; out-of-state family members anxious for help contacting loved ones.

By Wednesday, the focus had shifted to recovery. The United Way was working to coordinate food and water distribution among nonprofits, faith groups and disaster relief organizations, and to let callers know where they could get help. Likewise, they feed information back to the emergency responders to pinpoint areas and individuals needing help. 

Hafner, admittedly exhausted from the nonstop work, nevertheless says the ordeal has been heartwarming.

“Seeing the compassion and the care has been an amazing experience, and it’s been wonderful to see our community come together to get through this,” she says.

If you need assistance in Lee, Hendry or Glades, dial 211 or 433-3900. Please call between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. for hurricane recovery information.

In Collier, you can dial 211 or start a live chat by clicking here.

 

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