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Charlotte County information operators help residents as Hurricane Ian bombards the SW coast

charlotte county call center room.jpg
Sandra Viktorova
Call center operators in the Charlotte County Information Center on September 28, 2022. Operators answer questions and provide information about evacuation zones and shelters but as Hurricane Ian moved in, callers were reaching out for help.

An army of first responders, county staff, and volunteers have been working around the clock in Charlotte County doing their best to help residents get thru Hurricane Ian safely

Since Friday, at least 2,000 calls have come into Charlotte County’s Information Center. At first, the calls were from people asking about shelter locations and if they could take their pets with them.

On Monday, tougher calls about whether there was still time to leave started to come through.

Today, the most difficult calls are coming from people asking for help while operators know it’s too late for first responders to provide aid.

Two thirds of the county was told to evacuate, but from the calls received at the information center, many residents didn’t leave.

Laurie Kimball is one of the operators. On most days, she’s a grant analyst but now she is trying to help soothe the nerves of worried residents.

"Last night, I did have one call where a gentleman called in," said Kimball. "He was very, very upset and panicking. He was crying on the phone, and over the course of an hour, I listened to him and tried to get him to focus on getting a safe space in his house, figuring out what windows were where, and how he could very comfortably, you know, get himself kind of sheltered in place with himself and his dog."

"And by the end of the conversation, he was much calmer and said that he would call back in the morning. So the the nice thing that Mary (McFarland) was kind of coaching me along the way. We're here to listen, as well as to guide people."

"And if people are upset, if they're panicking, one of the things that every single person in this room has been doing is just calming people, getting them to a point where they can think straight and actually do something that's sensible. Because when you get upset and panicked, that's when you start to make mistakes."

The calls have been especially tough for volunteers like Mary McFarland. She is a team leader in the call center. McFarland is worried about her home in a mobile park.

Mary charlotte County call center.jpg
Sandra Viktorova
The calls have been especially tough for volunteers like Mary McFarland. She is a team leader in the call center. McFarland is worried about her home in a mobile park.

"Really, all of our calls are coming from red zones," said McFarland. "We've had several calls from people in Englewood. One gentleman last night, he was two blocks away from the beach in Englewood. And he had no car and no place to go."

"They were not, at that point, they were not going out. We had to tell him how to take care of himself in place. That will tear your heart out."

Kimball and McFarland expect the volume of calls to increase quickly as folks from across the country call in trying to reach loved ones in Charlotte County, wanting to know they're okay.

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