[This is the second installment in a four-part series about Robbie Endris’ personal experience as the Executive Director of the state’s child support agency in New Orleans during the 2005 arrival and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Read Part One here.]
When Katrina blew through on Monday, reports indicated that all was well and that evacuees could soon return home. A CNN reporter stood in a puddle in the French Quarter declaring that New Orleans had been spared. But this did not hold true. Breeches in the levee opened, and walls of water began to flow into our beloved, but below sea level, city. By nightfall, reporters announced that we had lost the Crescent City under several feet of water.
As a shocked nation watched by television, emergency operations moved to the highest level. While many evacuated, many had stayed behind. A large crowd was huddled in the Louisiana Superdome with no electricity and no water service. Rescue efforts included helicopter evacuations and house-to-house search. First responders worked to save lives. Shelters opened across the south, then around the nation.
The need was overwhelming. This disaster exceeded previous disasters in terms of needs for shelter, food, clothing, and medical care. An entire American city had left home, and no one could predict when they could return.
In a disaster, people come first. As the depth of need became apparent, ordinary citizens from around our nation came to the aid of the people of New Orleans. Yes, there were great losses, but there was an unprecedented response to the need.
Meanwhile, back in Baton Rouge, our child support leadership team faced a huge business challenge. Families needed their child support income and the opportunity to talk to us. Our New Orleans employees were scattered and needed help, too.
Our team began to deal with these issues:
- Hundreds of checks were mailed to payees, including those in New Orleans, on Friday, August 26, and now there were more checks to be mailed.
- All Post Offices in the New Orleans region were closed.
- Thousands of child support payees and payers were displaced with no way to get mail.
- There would be thousands of address and employment changes.
Two things were obvious. We needed a call center and we needed electronic funds disbursement. We had the first, but not the latter. We had to make it work with what we had.
In March 2005, Support Enforcement Services contracted statewide child support call center services to ACS State and Local Solutions (now Xerox.) This same company operated the Centralized Collections Unit for child support payments. Although the manager, Trina Richardson, lost her home in New Orleans on Monday, she was at work in Baton Rouge on Tuesday with her full staff. Telephones were answered and child support collections were processed on Tuesday, the day after the storm! The banks and the state offices did not open until Thursday, but special arrangements allowed us to make a Wednesday afternoon deposit.
We began taking hundreds of address and employment changes by telephone, dealing with requests for replacement of lost checks, and answering general questions. Working hours were extended and we went to a 7-day workweek. State employees were working in shelters, so the bulk of the work fell on our contract partners. They were equal to the task. Xerox provided remote assistance from their Texas call centers. When we discovered how many of our payees were in shelters there, Xerox worked with Texas officials to set up booths in the Astrodome and in San Antonio. With this assistance, we were able to communicate personally with our customers.
We acted quickly to stop mailings to New Orleans. Checks were printed, but held. As we located payees, checks were mailed to new addresses. With help from our District Attorney’s offices, we delivered checks in pony express style to drivers who took them to shelters and to the DA’s offices for pick-up. We mailed checks to Xerox in Texas, and they delivered them in Texas shelters with the help of county staff. Having learned a hard lesson, we pushed for the implementation of direct deposit and debit card payments, which took place in January, 2006.
Our New Orleans employees were dispersed everywhere. We worked with Xerox to add a hotline number for employees, which became a lifeline for them. Additional state programs needed help, so the 800 number was expanded again and again to meet needs. Numbers were publicized to help the evacuees without computer access. Callers were happy to hear a friendly voice. There are times when there is no substitute for a compassionate human.
It was hard work, but we opened the path for communication and for payment of child support. Other worries could wait. In any disaster, whether storm, fire, flood, or earthquake, people come first.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the series, in September. You can subscribe to be notified of updates here.