A Different Kind Of First Responder: 2-1-1 Navigation Center Specialists

It has been two months since Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Coast, but recovery efforts are far from over. Since the storm touched down on August 25, 2017, United Way for Greater Austin’s (UWATX) 2-1-1 Navigation Center has fielded more than 300,000 calls. In just two months, 2-1-1 took 98 percent of its 2016 call volume and the calls are still coming in. From evacuation information to FEMA assistance and volunteer aid, approximately 10 to 20 percent of 2-1-1 calls remain related to Hurricane Harvey disaster response.


The 2-1-1 Navigation Center is a principal part of a statewide support network that participates actively with emergency and disaster support. During Hurricane Harvey, 2-1-1 remained open and responsive 24/7 for nearly three weeks to help the network handle an overwhelming number of calls for rescue, support and recovery resources. In addition to dramatically extending overtime hours, the Navigation Center welcomed support from more than 60 volunteers UWATX staff, Board members and other community volunteers.


Harvey taught us that anyone can end up needing help in times of disaster


Picture this: you and your family are in a strong and stable place financially, you live in a nice two story house and you’ve never had to worry about where to get your next meal. Then, Hurricane Harvey hits. The entire first floor of the home you’ve worked so hard for is destroyed. The carpet is rotting and the sheetrock, drywall and insulation are mold-ridden. The damages to your home could be tens of thousands of dollars and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides you with just $4500 to rebuild—what would you do?


One of our call specialists met an exhausted, frustrated and teary woman on the other end of one of his many phone calls. The caller was in that exact, difficult situation. She desperately wanted to know what she could do and needed more resources, because $4500 was simply not enough.


“She was clearly a tough lady, but at the same time you could sense the vulnerability in her voice,” Alfredo Gutierrez, 2-1-1 Call Specialist said. “She broke down at the end of the call. I don’t know what it was about this specific call, because I have certainly heard worse cases than hers, but when I hung up I needed a break. That could have easily been me and my family and I guess that is why it impacted me so much.”


Harvey taught us that humans are incredibly resilient

In the midst of this crisis, 2-1-1 also had an influx of calls from volunteers—people who wanted to help. Some of the people calling had even been affected by the hurricane themselves. At a time when you would expect callers to be panicked, our call specialists reported that an overwhelming amount of people were calm, kind and understanding.

“A lot of callers wanted to help or volunteer—even people who were affected themselves,” Sarai Morales, 2-1-1 Call Specialist, said. “I took a call from a man in Port Arthur, one of the areas that was hit first. He wanted to offer up his boats to help save people in Houston who were affected. That was really incredible.”


Harvey taught us that a compassionate voice makes a difference 

Everyone, especially 10 year 2-1-1 Veteran Arlene Sanchez stressed the importance of active listening and compassion when it comes to answering disaster calls. After working for 2-1-1 during Hurricane Ike in 2007, Sanchez shared that her previous experience helped her feel confident and capable to take on Hurricane Harvey response.

“When Ike hit, I was going through training and all of the sudden I was thrown into completely different types of calls. I was confused and didn’t know what to say to people,” Sanchez said. “Someone was always asking questions and this time around I was the one people would come to. It felt good that I could use my experience to help people.”

Whether someone is calling in a time of disaster or on any given day of the week, compassion makes all the difference. It takes a special kind of person to take

2-1-1 calls day in and day out, but even those who help others need help. Thanks to the University of Texas School of Social work and 2-1-1 Leadership, our call specialists had the opportunity to debrief with certified faculty members in order to deal with the stress and anxiety of Harvey.


“No matter what we did there was no way we could catch up,” Sanchez said. “There was always someone on the phone. It was never got quiet until maybe last week and we are still getting calls.”


 Harvey taught us that we reach our highest potential when we help others


2-1-1 is a service managed and provided by United Way for Greater Austin. It’s a free, confidential service that connects callers to community resources including food, housing, education and employment services, child care, legal assistance, public benefits, health care, substance abuse/mental health, services for older adults and veterans, disaster assistance and more. If you need help, in any capacity, call 2-1-1 today.

It is important to understand that 2-1-1 is an information referral based system. Our Call Specialists act as the conduit between those experiencing need and the resources that can help them. At UWATX, we believe that everyone should have access to resourceful information and that through information, people can be empowered to help themselves.


“I am passionate about helping people,” Jeff Cary, Community Information Coordinator said. “And that’s what we do. We help people through human interaction that is real and authentic. We provide a safe place for people to yell or even cry. We are here to listen and to be compassionate and we’re going to assist our callers the best way we can.”