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IRS call center here aids Katrina victims Workers help callers make application for FEMA benefits

More than 2,700 Internal Revenue Service employees in Cheektowaga and three other cities are pitching in to help Hurricane Katrina victims, taking calls from people on behalf of the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In an effort to help FEMA dispense aid, the IRS has assigned its telephone operators in the four service centers to take calls from hurricane victims seeking to register for help. Operators in the AppleTree Business Park, as well as in Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia, are taking calls seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Currently, about 630 operators on two shifts are participating locally, including permanent full-time IRS workers, part-time employees who are working extra hours, and seasonal employees called back to help with the effort. Calls go through FEMA into the IRS routing system to be sent to the four facilities.

Callers are asked to provide basic information like name, an address and phone number where they can be reached, and what kind of property damage they suffered to their homes and cars. That information is then entered directly into the FEMA system, where FEMA's processing centers around the country use it to evaluate claims and calculate payments.

Where appropriate, IRS operators also refer callers to other agencies for aid or other needs, including the American Red Cross, Social Security Administration or local tax agencies.

"It feels good to help, but helpless at the same time," said 30-year-old Anthony Collett of West Seneca, a customer service representative for four years, who cited stories of families separated and unable to reach each other. "They need help immediately, and that's not something you're able to give them."

The toll-free number to reach FEMA is (800) 621-FEMA..

"Hundreds of thousands of families have been disbursed throughout the country and in order to recover benefits, they have to register," said IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson, who came to Buffalo Wednesday. "The right thing to do is for people to call."

The IRS for years has provided similar assistance to FEMA during hurricanes and other natural disasters, with employees usually volunteering to help out. It's even adjusted its workstations so it can routinely use those desks and computers for FEMA programs as needed.

But Everson said the scale of Katrina's impact led the agency to step up its effort. More than 4,000 seasonal workers have even been called up, with 900 assisting FEMA and the rest taking over regular tax duties.

The IRS began the current effort on Aug. 29 at FEMA's request, with Buffalo the first to ramp up its staffing by taking people off regular phone and collections duties. More employees are coming on board to help in coming days.

As of Wednesday, 2,743 IRS workers were taking FEMA calls, but by Friday, the tax agency expects to have 4,990 operators nationwide involved in the effort -- one-fifth seasonal workers. All told, including the IRS workers, private contractors and its own call centers, FEMA will have 14,000 operators helping victims.

"We're making this an absolute priority," Everson said. "People have dropped everything. They're coming in and working long hours. They're proud to be doing this work. We'll keep this in place as long as we need to."

Through mid-day Wednesday, IRS workers have answered 175,000 calls, with an average duration of 16 minutes and an average wait time of 92 seconds. About one-third of all FEMA calls are now being handled by IRS staff, but that's expected to rise to more than 50 percent.

Dawn Steinmiller, a 54-year-old part-time customer service representative for the IRS, worked 56 hours last week to help with the effort, and has volunteered to help during past hurricanes in each of the last four years. "How can you not?" she said. "You feel like you want to do something for these people."

Celia Brant took a call late Tuesday from a Mississippi man who had tried to ride out the storm with his brother in their house on the coast. A tidal wave wiped out the house and killed his brother, while he swam to safety. He's now in a Texas shelter, but has been unable to go identify his brother's body.

"All I could do was register him and listen to his story," said Brant, a 36-year-old full-time worker from Tonawanda. "That was probably the worst call I got. I was crying and trying not to let him know I was crying."

Sometimes, workers get a call from someone in a church or similar gathering place, with the phone passed around from victim to victim to avoid having to call back and wait. The result can be a single call lasting for hours, with the IRS having to relieve the operator as needed.

Everson said the effort will continue for at least several weeks, but will ramp down as call volume falls off. He stressed that the IRS is operating on behalf of FEMA and is not retaining information for tax purposes.

The effort is not affecting regular IRS tax operations or calls. The agency typically gets about 1 million calls a day at this time, which is small compared to its tax season volume. "It has an impact on the IRS, but it's worth it and minimally disruptive," Everson said.

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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