When disasters like the tornado in Moore, Okla., strike the United States, employees of a downtown Buffalo center run by director Colleen M. Hiam get ready to act. The U.S. Small Business Administration’s Disaster Assistance Customer Service Center provides people and businesses affected by natural disasters and incidents like 9/11 with help in applying for SBA disaster loans. “We might be very small, and people might not know about us, but we help in a lot of ways, and we come to victims’ aid nationwide,” Hiam said. About 70 people work at the South Elmwood Avenue location, plus 22 others who support an SBA operation in Texas. When a disaster hits, the Buffalo center staffs up, drawing from a pool of reservist workers. More than seven months into the current fiscal year, the center had handled about 325,000 calls, stemming partly from Hurricane Sandy last October.
Q: How is the Buffalo center responding to the Oklahoma tornado?
A: We’re going to have to bring back probably about a dozen (extra) people. We figure just from Oklahoma itself, we’ll probably get an additional 150 calls a day. But we’ve also had (a flood disaster declaration in) Missouri since then, and we’re also still dealing with the Illinois flooding. Usually the two to three weeks out from when a disaster is declared, that will be our busiest time. And being that they just announced (the declarations), we know we’re going to need extra people. So it’s not only going to generate extra calls, we’re going to get email inquiries, we’re going to have electronic loan applications that we’ve got to screen, and we also have to call each individual to make sure we can accept their application, that we’ve got everything. … We even have one (employee) going out there from here. We sent that person because he’s new, and we want him to get that experience in the field to have a better understanding of the hardships that are faced after a disaster like this. And many of our current people have already been in the field, so they can already empathize with the victims.
Q: Does the center’s experience with past disasters help you estimate the amount of work to expect?
A: Exactly. We look at all of our historical data. We get data from FEMA, and we do some extraction and extrapolation from that. So we can tell pretty much what we’re going to get and when we’re going to get the busiest.
Q: What kind of roles does the center play?
A: We will respond to a person’s inquiry, whether it’s via phone, letter, email or fax. If they need another application, we’ll send them another application. If they need help in completing that application, we’ll help them to complete it or fill it out. If they need some help with their electronic loan application, we’ll help them with that as well. … We have an 800 number that connects our internal folks with our people in the field. When you’re in a disaster recovery, you don’t always have the luxury of having a computer. You might not have connections, you’re not in the best conditions, you might not have a laptop handy. You might be a disaster verifier who’s out in the field and lost their way. So we act as their eyes and ears. If they’re sitting with a person, they could be in a camp for all we know. They could be in a building without electricity. … We do a lot of outgoing calls to our customers, too. When there’s a filing deadline coming up, someone who may have requested an application but we didn’t get it back, we call them to remind them. … We do autodial campaigns, especially in something very large like Sandy, where we can’t actually call everybody individually.
Q: How do you staff up quickly for a disaster like this one?
A: We have what we call our cadre employees, who are here working for us on a regular basis. And we have some core reservists who come back on pretty much a regular basis, and they may work for us for up to six months out of a year. We try to give them employment, and we try to keep rotating people in so that they are trained and available. Then we have the next layer of reservists, which are called our surge reservists, and those are ones that come on board for when we need them for something like a Sandy or a Katrina. … And then there’s what we call our surge plus. Those are the folks that may not necessarily be on board with us. They may have worked for us before. … Right now, we probably have 250 people available at any one time to come on board.
Q: Who is a typical reservist? A: It’s a little bit of everything. It’s perfect for somebody who’s retired or unemployed, because of course we’re going to need them full time, and we’ll probably need them (for different shifts). … Our salaries are very good here. Western New York is kind of like a hotbed for call centers. We have so many back room operations here that the people we pick up, they seem to be so good and so oriented in customer focus, and there’s such a hard and good work ethic in Buffalo. And our starting salaries start at about $32,000, so it’s very good for people, in terms of coming here.
Q: How big of an operation can the center become when necessary?
A: We have seating for about 200 agents. And if we were to run two shifts, we could probably handle anywhere from 15,000 to 18,000 calls. ... During Hurricane Katrina, we were handling 8,000 to 10,000 calls a day back then, and I think our top day was 16,000 calls.
Q: What was the experience from Sandy last October?
A: Usually calls happen in the second to third week, when we expect the brunt of our calls to really start coming in. But with Hurricane Sandy, it happened almost immediately. It seemed like the faucet turned on and those calls started coming in. Thankfully, we have that reserve and we were able to get people in here. We called on some others to help us out.
Q: What are some other things your office does?
A: Whenever necessary, we help process loan modifications. Somebody needs more money; they might need less money because they got their insurance back; change of address, change of phone number. That’s a loan modification. We may help with those changes here and process them here, to help alleviate any stress on the (processing and disbursement center). Plus, it keeps our agents experienced and well trained. (During Sandy), we actually helped process loans, as well.
We act as a special utility player, helping out wherever we can, any other center. In 2008, we made a proposal to headquarters to say, ‘We’ve got a lot of people who call here, and we have an online payment system where when someone has a disaster loan, they can go online to pay their loan. And we have a lot of people requesting us to help them with that.’ So we said, can we do that for them? And we got the permissions to go ahead and accept payments or set up a monthly debit. Since 2008, we’ve been doing that, and we’ve taken 123,000 payments and we’ve collected for the agency a little over $53 million. They thought that was great, and we thought it was, too.