Officials evaulate 311 performance following tornado disasterby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — North Minneapolis residents continue to rebuild their lives and homes after the May 22 tornado.
In the crucial hours and days following the storm, the city of Minneapolis promoted its 311 call center as a one-stop source for information.
Opinions vary on how well 311 performed.
The tornado hit north Minneapolis on a Sunday afternoon. Within three hours, there were four operators taking calls at the city's 311 call center.
The city gave MPR access to a 15-minute segment of calls beginning at about 8 p.m. that day.
Operator: "Minneapolis 311, this is Sarah. How can I help?"
Man : I'm trying to get information: my house was involved with the tornado in north Minneapolis. I have no power, no gas, no water. So, I'm trying to find out how to get assistance in getting a hotel, a place to stay?
Operator: "Let me give you the number to the Red Cross"
This is one of three calls that came in during that 15-minute period. In each, the 311 operator refers callers to other organizations.
Man: "I heard something about the Northeast Armory. What kind of assistance are they handing out?
Operator: "I can give you their phone number we don't have — we just know that it's open for assistance.
The center received 400 calls that day and 2,400 calls the next day, along with 162 emails.
Becky Maeder called 311 for help three times in the days following the tornado. She knew city inspectors were going through the neighborhood, tagging homes determined to be uninhabitable. But no one had come to the house Maeder's family rented in north Minneapolis.
"There were parts of our house where you could step through the floor and the ceiling was filling with water and caving in on us," Maeder said.
She couldn't get her landlord to make repairs, Maeder said. She thought attention from the city would put pressure on him.
"I'd called 311 to get in touch with the housing inspection division and once I told her that I had damage because of the tornado she right away shut me down and said 'No, they went to everyone's house and inspected, and if they didn't put a red sticker on your door then you're fine, you don't need an inspection.' "
Maeder posted her problem on a Facebook page dedicated to the Minneapolis tornado and she says city inspectors were at her house the next day.
Marc Dronen managed the 311 call center the night of the tornado. Some callers complained about the information they got, he said. Operators work to provide as much help as possible. But sometimes answers aren't available, Dronen said. In some cases, operators had to tell callers their assumptions were based on rumors or outdated information.
"(Callers) relied heavily on word of mouth, faith leaders, political leaders, but as (word) spread and moved around it had the ability to change from its original intent," Dronen said.
Dronen said as far as he's aware, the only incorrect information briefly given out by the city was a list of contractors that included some without licenses to work in Minneapolis.
"The information was very fluid and would change hourly, sometimes more frequently than that," he said
311's director, Don Stickney, said the center had never before taken such an important role in a disaster.
"I can't imagine what would've happened if 311 wasn't here," Stickney said. "Before we were here, who knows where those calls would've been and who those people would've talked to."
Stickney is considering ways to improve how 311 keeps its disaster information up to date, and is also looking at ways to work through social media and smartphones.
The northside's state representative, Joe Mullery, has been told tales of frustration with 311 following the tornado. With hindsight, he can see ways things could've been better, he said.
"I think that maybe you should still have them call 311, but if it's related to the tornado you should have them shifted over to another office that's set up to deal with those kinds of problems," Mullery said.
Ideally, representatives from different organizations and city departments should be in one room so callers can get an immediate answer, Mullery said.
- All Things Considered, 07/29/2011, 4:55 p.m.