Call center answers questions, offers words of support after Irma

In a time of need, FIU has been the voice on the other end of the line.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, staff have taken calls from members of both the FIU and South Florida communities seeking information.

While the majority of university employees and all students had been directed to stay off campus earlier in the week as emergency personnel confirmed that buildings were safe and landscape crews cleared debris, a team of seven manned a call center at MMC to answer questions and offer a listening ear.

Admissions officer Laura Pacchioni mans the post-Irma hotline.

It’s a high-touch approach that Director of Admissions Jody Glassman helped organize to put people at ease. She and the others have fielded queries from students wondering whether homework would be due on the first day back (the provost has asked that professors be flexible on assignments) and whether online classes had been cancelled along with in-person classes (the answer is yes) as well as from faculty without internet access who had no idea when they were to start teaching again. (The expectation is that classes will resume on Monday, Sept. 18, although a final decision has not been made at this time. Personal offices, but not necessarily research labs, are currently accessible.) And parents phoned in as they fretted about their children’s eventual return to campus.

“The parents want to know . . . is there a place for my kid to eat on campus? Is there a place for them to relax?” Glassman says. “You hear all these stories on the news about the devastation, and people without power, and the entire state is talking about it and these parents are like, do I really want to send my kid back there? We’re making sure they feel comfortable leaving their sons and daughters in our care.”

Talking with people directly can reassure them in a way that FAQs on a web site cannot, Glassman adds. “I think it makes people feel good to know that we’re right there with them,” she explains of the personal contact. “I haven’t had electricity for five days either, so when somebody says we haven’t had power, we [in the call center] are able to say, ‘You know, this Starbucks is open,’ or, ‘This gas station is open.’ We’re able to offer that experience because we’re in there with them.”

Caryn Lavernia, assistant vice president for the Office of Community Engagement, agrees. She spent a few days taking calls before resuming her regular duties. “I think in times of crisis like this, information is most important. Even if we cannot resolve the problem for a person, being able to speak to a student, a faculty or staff member, a concerned parent and just helping them get a little bit of information, as much as we can provide, and just offering it in the ear is really important.”

Within the first two days of operation, hundreds of calls came in. Many were related to Bayview student housing at BBC, which is not yet reopened to residents. Many people also called to ask how they might make donations of goods to the Monroe County evacuees who were housed at the FIU Ocean Bank Convocation Center before being moved to a shelter at Tamiami Park. (Callers have been directed to the local Red Cross.) Those operating the phones were also prepared to answer questions about looming drop/add deadlines (they have been extended to Sept. 22), when the public can collect cars stored for safekeeping in FIU garages during the storm (immediately) and the resumption of FIU Athletics events (they will return to regular schedules on Sept. 17).

The center will continue to field calls between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 15. The number is 305-FIU-HELP.