Sunday, November 6, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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String of disasters takes toll on FEMA workers

The Associated Press

DENTON, Texas — Some hurricane victims tearfully call Evelyn Simmons from motel rooms, out of money and hope, begging for any kind of help she can provide from the federal call center where she works.

Some angrily demand quicker assistance and less bureaucracy. Some have even told Simmons' colleagues they're considering suicide.

"They're helpless, and you can't get to them," she said.

The hopelessness lingers for Simmons, 57, and her co-workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency center long after the callers hang up.

The already-stressful job has became even more grueling in recent months as hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma smashed into the country in an eight-week span. As many as 73,000 calls could come in on any given day at the four call centers FEMA has set up.

The call centers usually work round-the-clock shifts during disasters, helping to temporarily house people and assist with aid applications. But those crisis hours are normally short-lived, as victims return to their homes to patch up damaged property and lives, said applicant services manager Phyllis Paton.

This time there's been no letup. Katrina hit on Aug. 29, displacing an estimated 1.5 million and causing more than $34 billion in damage.

As call center operators struggled to assist those evacuees, Hurricane Rita roared ashore on Sept. 24 — sparking an exodus of approximately 3 million more people.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Paton, who has worked for FEMA since 1983.

Many FEMA workers had been working 12-hour shifts, 12 days in a row, when Wilma hit Florida on Oct. 24.

"When they saw Wilma coming, it was heartbreaking," Paton said. "They were begging for two days in a row off before they had to kick it up again. The stress level out here is unbelievable."

The Denton center's 1,261 workers now are breaking up their time among three eight-hour shifts each day. FEMA tries to give employees time off after six days worked, Paton said. Calls are handled by 350 workers on each shift, and the center has hired a temp agency to fill empty chairs.

The limited time off and excessive hours have taken their toll.

Simmons said she didn't even have enough time to see her 19-year-old granddaughter before she shipped out to Iraq with the Army.

"That kind of got next to me," said Simmons, who has worked at the FEMA center for 13 years.

Paton said she's also seen the hurricanes' effect on her family. Her husband is calling himself a "disaster widower," and her grandson has become "grumpy" and withdrawn in her absence.

Paton said particularly dramatic calls during the storms have prompted outbursts of emotion on the floor, with callers "screaming and my folks screaming, and everybody's crying."

Stress counselors are available on each shift, and workers are also entitled to six free counseling sessions. There is no way to record how many take advantage of the offer because the sessions are anonymous, Paton said.

But those counselors may not be enough, said Dr. Alan LaGrone, associate professor of psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

With such intense exposure to workplace stress, the FEMA employees could develop "a secondary trauma themselves from listening to traumatic stories all day," he said.

Such an occurrence is usually seen in therapists dealing with war-torn or horrified communities, but LaGrone said the prolonged drama of the hurricanes could engender the condition in call operators.

"My hypothesis is that people from a call center may develop something similar to that, partly exacerbated by the fact that they may feel powerless to help," he said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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