Many Americans wrongly perceive that when natural disasters strike, it is only the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and more specifically DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), that responds. The reality is that when the American people are faced with disaster, it is all hands on deck within the federal government, which was definitely the case with Hurricane Katrina. While it probably wouldn’t come as much of a shock to learn that agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services or the Department of Housing and Urban Development played a central role in the response and recovery effort, it will surely surprise many to know that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) played a key role in helping thousands of Katrina victims get through the storm and get back on their feet. In fact, under the leadership of Betsy Kinter, IRS’s contributions exceeded any the agency had ever provided in a crisis situation.
Betsy Kinter’s primary job is to oversee 25 IRS customer contact centers nationwide. IRS has a standing agreement with FEMA to use four of these centers to provide telephone assistance for disaster victims following a Presidential disaster declaration. Under the agreement, IRS will provide a maximum of 600 representatives to field calls from disaster victims. These IRS employees serve as the first point of contact for FEMA, registering victims for federal assistance. After Katrina struck, it quickly became apparent that 600 representatives would not be sufficient. It was up to Kinter to quickly mobilize a dramatically larger force to meet the needs of the Katrina victims.
Kinter immediately converted four IRS toll-free telephone assistance sites in Atlanta, Buffalo, Dallas and Philadelphia to full-time FEMA assistance sites. To staff these facilities, she mobilized a number of part-time IRS employees who typically only worked during tax season. Now, instead of 600 employees available to take phone calls, there were 4,600. This team of IRS employees answered the calls of more than 948,000 Katrina victims and registered them with FEMA so they could receive much needed aid. The number of people helped surely exceeded one million, as it was a common practice for victims who got through to the call centers to register themselves and then hand the phone off to another victim, then another and another. There are numerous stories of these “delta calls” which lasted for hours with the IRS employees’ staying on the line until the very last person seeking help had gotten it.
Kinter not only did a remarkable job of orchestrating and managing the situation, but she and her husband actually answered calls themselves at the Atlanta call center, proving that she is one federal manager who certainly walks the walk.
In addition to the services being provided for FEMA, Betsy Kinter established a toll-free IRS line to help victims find information about possible tax relief, as well as obtain free copies of their tax return transcripts. More than 100,000 customers were served on these lines.
All the while it was business as usual at the IRS. Kinter was able to redirect the work normally done by the affected call centers to other sites without any disruption in IRS’s basic services.
For some people, the idea of a phone call with somebody from the IRS is their worst nightmare. But thanks to the work of Betsy Kinter, a conversation with an IRS employee proved to be a lifeline for thousands of victims of one the worst natural disasters in our country’s history.