"Okay, whatcha gonna do?" challenged the even-toned, checkmating voice over the telephone from the Mayor's Command Center. Yvonne Better is on the hotline to a city department head. Someone needs help and she means to get it.
Energy-charged, she jumps, hops and runs from phone to phone staving off evictions, providing shelter for fire victims, sending out rat patrols, getting a bat out of a bedroom, turning on heat and hot water.
According to her boss, Richard Bottorff, "Yvonne can handle anything."
As hundreds of District residents who've needed emergency help already know, 727-6161 is Yvonne Better. She runs her citizen assistance operation as if the country were at war. Indeed, the command center used to be known as the Office of Emergency Preparedness. It is the city's Civil Defense communications center, and it is from there that services are coordinated and logistics mapped for disasters.
But between disasters, Better concerns herself with human emergencies, many of which fall into the categories of falling plaster, flooded basements and providing clothing, food stamps and shelter for the poor and indigent.
"I'm all the way into it," she says of her commitment to the job. She sometimes becomes so emotionally involved, she finds herself working through tears.
An hysterical mother called from Southeast to report that she was awakened by screams from her three small children and discovered three rats under the covers of their single bed, biting them. Better called Environmental Services immediately and a rat extermination team was dispatched to the home.
An elderly cancer patient, defeated and about to be evicted, called to say softly that she was going to commit suicide because she was "too tired to go on." Better first called the Department of Human Resources, then the woman's rental office and the Department of Welfare. She took a command center car to the woman's apartment to personally deliver her good news. A welfare check will cover the rent. Food stamps will provide the food. The woman cries in relief.
A policeman, responding to a complaint, calls to report that an elderly tenant in Northwest has been discovered in her apartment covered from head to foot with paper bags to protect her from the vermin infesting her building. According to the policeman, "the roaches and lice were so thick on the walls you couldn't see the wallpaper." Better sends a housing inspector to the building; the woman is committed to D.C. General.
"I drop my pocketbook on the table, my coat on the chair, and hit the phones as soon as I walk in this door," Better says. She plows through the day without a break of any kind, including lunch. She hits the street often -- sometimes forgetting pocketbook and coat in her haste -- to beat a marshal to the scene of an eviction or to go in the basement of a dwelling to check the severity of a drainage leak.
Better, 44, raised four sons alone after divorcing her husband and sending a daughter off to school. She couldn't have done it, she freely admits, without help: St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home took in her children when she was hospitalized, and the Department of Recreation's Roving Leader program provided adult male counseling for her sons.
"I am grateful," she says. "I know what it is to be out in the wilderness." She knows that her zeal is uncommon in the bureaucracy: "I know what it is to wait for hours and then be told 'No' or 'Come back tomorrow.' It's important that people know I'm trying to help them -- even if there's nothing I can do."
Better, a GS-7, earns $13,950 a year, an amount she feels is "not enough, but they don't have enough money in the budget to pay me more."
On call 24 hours a day, she has a two-way radio at her home that has been known to keep after her through the night. At a quarter past midnight, one memorable Sunday morning, Councilwoman Nadine Winter called the command center to request immediate removal of a dead cat from the sidewalk in front of her home. The center radioed Better. A dead cat. Midnight. She called the Sanitation Department: "Get the hell over to Councilman Winter's house and get that damned cat."
Says co-worker Steve Sachs: "Yvonne gets the job done."