311 call center was lifeline when Sandy hit

Lucie Bolden, a 311 representative, works in the Lucie Bolden, a 311 representative, works in the call center on in Manhasset, New York. (Dec. 5, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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The calls came in from all over.

There were downed trees in Manhasset, lost power in Great Neck and a couple trapped in an ATM vestibule near Merrick.

On an average day, the 311 center in North Hempstead gets fewer than 500 calls. But the day superstorm Sandy hit, operators received more than 3,000.

And not all were from North Hempstead.

"We were taking calls from all over the region," said Dave Gottesman, who until last week ran TownStat, a program that tracks data for the town. "I spoke to people from the boroughs, from the South Shore, Hempstead, Oyster Bay; that was important because we were, in that time of crisis, the only resource for a lot of people."

During the next two weeks, the center -- housed in locations in Manhasset and Westbury and operating on generators -- received 37,000 calls. As a lifeline for callers, said Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman, the center "really came into its own during the storm."

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The Westbury site, at the recently birthed "Yes We Can" Community Center, isn't slated to open until January. But the Oct. 29 storm prompted an early test run.

Designed to help residents with modest concerns such as potholes, the center was a port in the storm for those fed up with the Long Island Power Authority and in the dark. Modeled after large ones in New York City and Baltimore, the operation was the first of its kind on Long Island when it opened in 2005.

Suburban sprawl, officials said, can often leave residents feeling isolated. Few towns have an official 311 call center as sophisticated as the one in New York City, which averaged 169,000 calls each day during the two weeks after the storm and is always open 24 hours.

Brookhaven, with a similar hotline, fielded a third of the calls North Hempstead did during those two weeks, but was not open 24 hours, though it extended weekend hours.

"It becomes a lifeline to a lot of people when they are just starved for information, or a live person to talk to," Kaiman said.

More than 35 staffers worked at both North Hempstead centers, open 24 hours a day in the first 10 days after Sandy. Staffers clocked 15-hour shifts by emergency operators, and at times, deputy commissioners, council members and even Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck).

Vincent Malizia, call center director, said on any given day the town receives a "small percentage" of calls from outside localities, often the result of crossed telephone lines near towers on the border of Queens and North Hempstead.

During the days after the storm, Thomas Harty, a former town official who helped start the original call center, said he was heartened to see the call center flourish under pressure. "I'm very proud of it."

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