By Sue Price Johnson
Hours after Hurricane Matthew drenched eastern North Carolina last year, a panicked caller searched for help escaping the floodwaters racing toward his rural home. The local 911 system was overloaded, so he called NC 2-1-1, whose specialists were able to coordinate the rescue through the local emergency management system.
“It was between 1 and 4 in the morning,” said Janay, an information and referral specialist who asked that her last name not be used because of agency policy. The caller told her the water had never been so high. In the background, Janay heard what sounded like a rushing river and an anxious woman calling out that the water was getting higher.
NC 2-1-1 (callers dial 211) operates around the clock, 365 days of the year, offering local referrals to anyone needing help—whether for food, shelter, medical aid, transportation or almost anything else in the state.
The confidential service uses a database built by United Way of North Carolina with assistance from local United Way organizations, the state Department of Health and Human Services and private and public partners.
That confidentiality is the reason Janay told the flooding story without divulging personal information.
“Just having 2-1-1, a simple number, was huge for Hurricane Matthew. Local government emergency management could use the 2-1-1 code to allow people to reach out about local issues, so they could focus on the emergency of the disaster,” said Laura Marx, president and CEO of United Way of North Carolina.
Money crises are top concern
More than 12,000 people have called NC 2-1-1 seeking help since Matthew hit last October, Marx said, and calls have continued leading up to the 2017 hurricane season, which began this month.
Emergencies linked to natural disasters are just one part of the NC 2-1-1 mission. Individual crises, especially about money, are the focus of the majority of calls each day. Specialists can direct someone to a local resource, such as medical care, or might offer advice on juggling finances by suggesting the caller consider help from a food pantry to free up money for a utility bill.
“You have the opportunity to create a silver lining and offer help they may not know was in their own community,” Janay said.
Because of the success of NC 2-1-1, the program is in the process of expanding to include more information about caregiving services, said Doug Dickerson, AARP North Carolina state director. Someone needing transportation to a doctor, for example, might be told that a local church offers that service.
“When it comes to the services that are available to assist family caregivers, current and accurate information is often hard to find,” Dickerson said. “The expansion of 2-1-1 to include caregiving resources will be a big benefit to those taking care of their loved ones.”
The expansion of the program was among the recommendations last year of the North Carolina Institute of Medicine’s Task Force on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias, which AARP cochaired. This year, AARP is playing an important role in helping promote the program.
United Way and NC 2-1-1 were among the priorities for funding when AARP members and AARP Foundation donated $200,000 for disaster relief in North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew, Dickerson said. He is also focused on beefing up resources to help with a variety of issues for those with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers.
That’s a mission of the state Department of Health and Human Services as well. It too is working to publicize NC 2-1-1.
Learn more about NC 2-1-1 by dialing 211 or 888-892-1162 toll-free, going to nc211.org or contacting Heather Black, United Way’s NC 2-1-1 strategy director, at 919-834-5200.
Sue Price Johnson is a writer living in Raleigh.