When Tropical Storm Isaac dumped as much as 17 inches of rain west of West Palm Beach last summer, more than 4,000 people who might have called 911 instead dialed the county’s emergency operation center.
Such hotlines, and programs such as the county’s 211 resource center, relieve the work of emergency police and fire dispatchers swamped by events such as the historic rainfall.
“It’s a reminder for us of those things that don’t quite warrant calling 911,” John Jamason, a public affairs manager for Palm Beach County, told a session of the Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference last week.
Simple math suggests calls will spike when a potential disaster affects a wide area.
“When the rumors start — they hear this, they saw that on TV — a lot of the calls are generated by fear,” local 211 resource center manager Pablo Mirabal said. “We try to at least get the people talking and involved about what’s going on to get an idea of their mental status.
“It’s not just providing information. Anyone can do that.”
That’s taxing in a region full of vulnerable seniors. Once a hurricane becomes even a potential threat to South Florida, “a lot of our elderly population start getting nervous and we start getting the calls,” Mirabal said.
Last August, Isaac was anything but unnerving for people in Palm Beach County. It was far out in the Gulf of Mexico, aiming for Louisiana.
But then a rogue outer band slid across Florida’s southeast coast, dropping rainfall that ranged as high in spots as 17 inches.
The county’s hotline (561-712-6400) is activated when the regular emergency operations center operators are overwhelmed, and that’s what happened.
Complicating things for emergency managers: Only a tiny segment of a giant county was affected.
“For a lot of people, life just went on,” Jamason said. “it was a unique situation where our EOC (emergency operations center) was very active. A lot of staff were involved there for this very small situation.”
The top reasons for the 4,000-plus calls to Emergency Management were, in order: flooding, flood damage, school closings, water or food requests and health concerns.
Of those, 169 called about water in homes, although some of those might have been neighbors calling about the same location.
“People literally were trapped,” Jamason said. Emergency managers made 650 relief trips to homes, including delivering medicines postal carriers could not, he said. People were dealing with contaminated water systems and were running out of food for themselves, their pets and livestock.
But “a lot of them still had power and the (flood) water wasn’t in the house,” Rob Shelt, assistant operations manager for Palm Beach County Emergency Management, said at the session. “It really was an isolation problem.”
The 211 service, around for four decades, helps callers across Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast with issues ranging from bus schedules to obtaining health coverage and even to finding food and clothing.
It operates around the clock, using about 35 full-time “resource specialists,” and maintains a database of about 1,500 agencies and more than 3,000 programs.
The program, which expanded to the Treasure Coast a decade ago, received 141,439 calls in 2011-12. More than 70 percent of those were from Palm Beach County.
CLARIFICATION: Because of a reporting error, some early versions of a story on telephone calls for assistance during Tropical Storm Isaac in 2012 said more than 4,000 calls were made to the 211 resource center. The calls were made to the Palm Beach County Emergency Operation Center’s hotline.
Palm Beach County’s emergency management center hotline got more than 4,000 calls during heavy flooding in August, caused by rains from Tropical Storm Isaac. Here’s a breakdown of the types of calls by percentage:
Flood damage 15
Water/food request 6.7
Animal concerns 3.8
Dead fish 1.9
Sewage/well water 1.1
Schools status 10.3
County status 2.8
Health/mosquito issues 6.1
Corbett Wildlife Mgt. Area breach 1.3
SOURCE: Palm Beach County government