During wildfires and hurricanes, a language gap can be deadly

Source(s)
Grist Magazine

By Kate Yoder

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Living along the path of a wildfire, hurricane, or tornado is a terrifying experience under the best of circumstances, but it can be a particularly dangerous situation for people who primarily speak languages other than English.

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Migrants like Kouhirostami are especially vulnerable to disasters and systematically left behind when they strike, in part because local governments and institutions often fail to translate important notices. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, for example, many Vietnamese and Latino immigrants had a harder time understanding storm warnings and evacuation orders, since the broadcasts were only in English. In 2013, tornadoes in Oklahoma killed nine people from the Guatemalan community, and a National Weather Service report found that the lack of severe weather information in Spanish may have contributed to their deaths. 

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The resulting public outcry helped prompt county-level officials to make some improvements in recent years. Méndez pointed to Sonoma County’s Office of Equity, established last year, and Ventura and Santa Barbara counties hiring full-time Spanish-speaking public information officers. But he says the problem is very far from being solved. While non-English speakers often get lumped into one group, they have very different needs — for example, many of the area’s Indigenous immigrants from Mexico speak languages like Mixtec, but neither English or Spanish.

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