Hurricanes and tropical storms are a fact of life for residents of the U.S. Gulf Coast. From Corpus Christi, TX, to Naples, FL, the months of August and September have become synonymous with torrential rains and lashing winds.
But no matter how many times severe weather strikes this region, it never becomes routine; family members are separated, longtime residents are displaced from their homes, irreplaceable property is destroyed, and whole lives are upended by these unpredictable natural disasters. In the late summer of 2017, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused countless scenes of heart-rending devastation like this.
In these harrowing times, simple human contact can be powerful and life-affirming for survivors. Few people understood this quite as keenly as Chris Harper, VP of communications at The Arbor Company, an Atlanta-based company that manages senior-living communities in the Gulf Coast region of Texas and Florida.
When Hurricane Harvey began barreling down on southeast Texas and floodwaters began to rise in Houston, evacuation orders came in for one of the Arbor Company’s retirement communities in the city’s suburbs. It was a dramatic scene right out of a movie, with police and volunteers cobbling together a ‘Cajun Navy‘ of private boats to evacuate the remaining seniors.
“We had about 120 people in the building at the time, and some of them had already been evacuated by friends and family members,” Harper explained. “And because it was this last-minute mandatory evacuation, and because FEMA was in charge of the operation, our residents were being triaged at the pickup location and sent to different shelters around the Houston area.”
Travel quickly became impossible due to widespread flooding, and landline and internet services were spotty or nonexistent throughout the Houston metro area. For more than a week, 148,000 Houston residents were without phone or internet service, with flooding and storms knocking out at least 17 emergency call centers and 320 cellular cites.
This presented an immediate and pressing problem: How could family members of the Arbor Company’s senior residents get in touch to let each other know they’re OK?
“Families wanted to know where their loved ones were or vice-versa, and we wanted to know too, because we treat our residents like our own family,” Harper said.
The solution would come from an unlikely place: Automated voice-transcription technology.
The Arbor Company’s innovative thinking saves the day
“Since the building’s phone system was underwater at this point, we got the idea that we needed to have a way for families to get in touch with us,” he said. “Since we’ve been using CallRail for a while, I just thought to myself, why not set up a tracking number? Very quickly, like within five minutes, we created an offline tracking number and setup a recording on there.”
The Arbor Company had previously only used call tracking for inbound marketing and analytics, but they quickly found that this technology could have life-saving implications during this time of crisis. They could add and update a recorded message for inbound callers to ensure they were providing family members with the most up-to-date information on their loved ones. But more importantly, they could give callers the opportunity to leave a message that the Arbor company could then relay to their seniors, along with the residents’ replies to their families.
Even though phone and internet throughout Houston remained down for more than a week, cell coverage fortunately remained stable enough for the Arbor Company to maintain a lifeline between seniors and their families. And with CallRail’s transcription service, incoming messages were automatically transcribed and sent out as emails within minutes.
“When they left a voicemail we used the transcription service, and [the transcript] would then get emailed to our director who was on the ground in Houston,” Harper explained. “Our team was able to get email on their phones and zap these messages around really quickly.”
First Harvey, then Irma
The plan worked so well that when Hurricane Irma was poised to strike Florida a week and a half later, Harper leapt into action and preemptively set up an expanded version of this system for the Arbor Company’s Florida communities.
“We have seven communities in Florida, and they’re all coastal, so they were all basically in the path of the storm,” Harper explained. “We set up hurricane hotline numbers for each of those communities, as well as a master 800 number to route calls to specific buildings.”
He continued: “Local officials ended up evacuating three of our communities in Florida, which isn’t necessarily normal, but it’s something we’ve had to deal with before in coastal Florida. And throughout that whole process, we were able to communicate with families through Facebook and our outbound robocalls, and then having CallRail to process incoming messages.”
Where a traditional phone line or cell number would have been bottlenecked by the volume of incoming calls, CallRail allowed them to queue up calls to ensure everyone’s message could get through. And rather than having to wait at least 24 hours for local telecoms to provide them with new numbers, Harper was able to get everything up-and-running with a few minutes of work.
Safe and sound, regrouping and rebuilding
As the floodwaters receded from Houston and coastal Florida began to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of Irma, Harper was amazed by the outpouring of admiration and appreciation for the Arbor Company’s hard work. And he was equally impressed by the sheer volume of incoming calls they processed during this period: More than 2,000, he estimates.
That figure is proof positive of how invaluable a lifeline the Arbor Company proved to be during this crisis — where other senior and residential communities could at best make sparing updates on Facebook, the Arbor Company was able to provide up-to-the-minute updates to friends and families of their community.
“The families of our community members told us how the fact that they could call us and ask us questions brought so much peace of mind,” Harper said. “Sometimes, the messages were: “Hey, tell my grandmother we’re OK and we’ve evacuated. We’re thinking about her.” We’d pass that along, and sometimes get them a cellphone so they could call their family member back. Without CallRail, we just wouldn’t have been able to do that, there was literally no other way to get messages from families.”
Moving forward, this success has inspired Harper to set up a dedicated version of their alert-and-response system: “I think we’re going to have this in Florida as a permanent thing — maybe not as a hurricane hotline, but definitely as a downtime hotline.”
The Arbor Company’s story shows how when local authorities fail or fall short, civic-minded entrepreneurs and technology can step in to fill the gaps. It’s also a testament to the fact that no matter what comes next for Florida and Texas, the Arbor Company will be ready to support their community.