Major gaps in public safety communication were revealed last year when tornados ravaged the Midwest and a disproportionate number of Latino families lost their lives during the catastrophically-intense storms. According to a National Weather Service (NWS) report, the tragedy of the tornados that ripped through Oklahoma were amplified due to the lack of non-English speaking warning methods available to the burgeoning immigrant population in the area—primarily Latino and Vietnamese.
After the May 20, 2013 EF-5 tornado hammered Moore, Oklahoma, another twister ravaged the Oklahoma City metropolitan area just 11 days later. The second storm claimed 23 lives, nine of whom were part of the local Latino community. Of those who lost their lives, seven were victims who had taken shelter in a storm drain and then drowned.
“They didn’t drown because of the tornado,” said Ruben Aragon, president and CEO of the Latino Community Development Agency in Oklahoma City. “They drowned because of misinformation.”
In exploring the Oklahoma tragedy, it looks like the misinformation comes from multiple fronts. First, understanding local weather patterns and how to deal with severe situations is outside the box of newly-arrived immigrants to an area. In other words, a native of Puerto Rico who’s well-versed in safety protocols around hurricanes likely doesn’t have any idea as to how to stay out of harm’s way when in it comes to a tornado.
Secondly, formal relationships between the NWS and non-English speaking institutions are too lax. Authors of the NWS report suggest formalizing and strengthening their relationship with non-English-speaking broadcasters and other typical go-to sources for emergency information.
Another difficulty in conveying severe weather information, reads the report, are cultural differences in terms of warning language. For example, translations of “tornado emergency” and “tornado warning” are indistinct, “so meaningful distinctions between an average tornado and a catastrophic one are lost,” according to the report.
“The NWS, working with the entire weather enterprise, should initiate risk communication for non-English speakers and other underrepresented groups. This should include the incorporation of images and other non-verbal forms of communication to NWS warning products and information exchange. Outreach to organizations that work with these populations can help design risk communication strategies to meet the needs of these populations,” the report concluded.