Answering the Call for Hurricane Charley

By Carin Shulusky

Aggie Allbright wasn’t thinking of a hurricane when she opened her security and answering service business in 1979, but Hurricane Charley may have given them their finest moments. Aggie owns Port Charlotte Answering Service, a four-seat telemessaging call center and its parent, Security Alarm Corporation, in a sleepy Florida harbor town. It was a quiet town until Hurricane Charley put them on the map.

Hurricane Charley was predicted to land near Tampa; Port Charlotte was expected to be on the edge of the storm. Much of the Tampa area was evacuated, but not the area to the south, including Port Charlotte. Charley was also projected to hit land as a category two hurricane. When it hit Port Charlotte, Charley was a category four hurricane.

“We got to work at 7:30 AM on Friday, August 13th,” said Aggie. “We were told the hurricane was coming up the Gulf, but we didn’t know exactly where it would land. We had three operators, one manager, and myself in our safe room.”

Two years ago, Aggie built a new office, including a 28′ x 20′ safe room of solid concrete. The room was built to withstand 170 mile-per-hour winds. The safe room houses their call center, a bathroom, a computer room, and a small office. They have another small concrete building that holds their diesel-powered backup generator.

“By 2:00 PM, the Red Cross, one of our clients, sent out an emergency message that everyone who hadn’t left better hunker down.” “So we brought some families in the room with us and waited for it to hit, and boy did it hit. At 4:30 PM, we were taking turns watching a tornado through the little window.”

“We just kept answering call after call, after call. Many desperate, anguished calls came from people worried about their loved ones. Some of the calls were heart wrenching. Many were worried about elderly parents, begging someone to help them get out. But we couldn’t even get out to check on our own family members. The Red Cross even evacuated and we had to handle their calls.”

The electricity went out at 4:30 PM when the hurricane hit, but their emergency generator kicked in and they never lost a beat answering calls. When one agent got tired or overwhelmed with the desperation of the calls, someone else took over. Aggie has owned the business for 25 years but on that day, she took calls for the first time in a very long while. “We handled nearly 1,800 calls on that day. Our normal rate is around 1,100 calls,” she recalled. Most of the Port Charlotte Answering Service staff didn’t even know if their loved ones were okay, but they kept taking calls until 1:00 AM, when the phone lines went out.

Finally, with the phone lines out, it was time to leave their room and find their families. Aggie’s usual seven-minute drive home took her 30 minutes. There were so many trees on the road it was difficult for her to find her way home. “The next morning driving to work, I saw a friend sitting on top of the pile of rubble that had been his business for 25 years. All we could do was cry,” she said.

Two of Port Charlotte Answering Service’s employees lost their homes, seven had serious roof damage, and two had damage to their cars. Fortunately, none of their employees or their families were hurt in the storm. Most employees had no electricity in their homes for seven to 12 days.

“Although we had no electricity, no air conditioning, or hot water, our staff still came to work, even in the 100+ degree weather,” said Aggie.

“I am very pleased with our Telescan call processing system, too,” said Aggie. “Through all this, it continued to operate normally. We never lost a single beat,” she added. “I’m glad we had a system so easy to learn, because I had to instantly become an operator during the hurricane and it was a breeze to learn.”

Port Charlotte Answering Service will be dealing with the aftermath of the hurricane for some time to come. On their first day back to 100% service, they handled over 1,800 calls. Many of their clients lost their buildings, so they are depending more than ever on their answering service to keep them in business. Many of Port Charlotte Answering Service’s 190 clients are doctors. With their buildings gone, we are now taking their emergency calls 24/7 instead of the usual after hours. But we know things will get back to normal someday. We just have to hang in there until then,” said Aggie.

If you would like to help with the relief efforts in Florida, please contact:

Charlotte County Chapter of American Red Cross,
Hurricane Charley
1300-D Enterprise Drive
Port Charlotte, FL 33953

[From Connection Magazine October 2004]

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