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Planning for Communication with Non-English Speakers in Disaster Situations



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Empathy for underserved communities is vital to planning and making decisions that will be inclusive, particularly during emergency situations and disasters. Hurricane Harvey is now in the history books as one of the most damaging storms the United States has experienced in decades. Thousands of Houston, Texas-area residents, for example, are now addressing its effects, which included more than 50 inches of rain, when that city typically only receives 48 inches of precipitation in an entire year (Erdman, 2017). More than 31 people in Houston died as a result of the storm (, 2017). Many homes in its path were damaged or washed away completely, some individuals lost family members and friends and there is a long road ahead for many whose properties were devastated by wind, rain or flooding. As those directly affected continue to assess the damage, public officials at all levels of government and nonprofit organization leaders have begun to ask, “What could we have done better?”

In that spirit, this essay will focus on one vital aspect of emergency management and planning; communicating with residents with limited English proficiency. Specifically, it will discuss the following concerns related to this imperative and use Houston’s emergency management planning efforts as an example:

  1. Language barriers to emergency communication
  2. Distrust of law enforcement and government representatives within communities with language barriers, which include unauthorized immigrants
  3. Solutions that combine community feedback and emergency management best practices.

Communicating with residents who may not speak or understand English entails more than translating English into their native language or offering an interpreter’s services when necessary. It requires sensitivity to the cultures and specific needs of the residents of such communities. These populations frequently have legitimate cultural concerns that make their members nervous about trusting local authorities. Meanwhile, municipal and county governments have often made assumptions about communities’ needs, in lieu of asking those affected to share them. How can policymakers and communities work together to address the unique challenges linked to natural disaster preparation and recovery amidst lingual and cultural heterogeneity?

Recognizing and Addressing Language Barriers

Spanish and Vietnamese are two of the top five languages spoken in Houston. Houston has the fourth highest population of Hispanic residents (2.3 million) among cities in the United States and about 39 percent of that number are foreign-born (Pew, 2017). The city also has the third highest population of Vietnamese residents (120,000) among cities in the United States. Approximately 37.9 percent of Vietnamese-speaking residents in the Houston metropolitan area have limited English proficiency, defined as having difficulty reading, writing, speaking or understanding English (City of Houston, 2013).

The U.S. Census defines a household as “linguistically isolated” if its members 14 or older evidence difficulty with English and speak a different native language (Shin, 2003). People with limited English proficiency may struggle or adapt differently to tasks than fluent English speakers. For example, they often navigate public transit by memorizing symbols on signs and notable features of a station, since they are unable to read the words on them (Community Transportation Association of America, 2016). City transit officials should work to communicate changes in bus or subway routing or timetables broadly and in multiple languages in areas where different languages are spoken. Appropriate transit information sharing is necessary to ensure that all can adjust. Emergency management efforts are no different. They, too, must be offered and planned in ways that seek to involve all of a community’s population, regardless of its members’ capacity to speak or write English.

Existing language barriers in a community can be exacerbated during natural disasters when government officials assume high-level English fluency when sharing emergency information. In an interview with Good Magazine in 2014, for example, Thomas Phelan, an emergency management researcher, suggested that emergency messages and warnings are often written at the college level, which is far too complex to be understood by non-English speakers, children and a share of the elderly (Hennefer, 2015). Moreover, most people do not know how to read a satellite image, irrespective of their relative language proficiency. If fluent speakers struggle with messages such as the one below, one may well imagine how much more challenging they are likely to be for those with limited English skills:

It is especially difficult for those with limited English proficiency to obtain medical help during times of emergency. Meischke, et al. (2010) surveyed professionals at health call centers and found that 80 percent of respondents encountered callers with limited English skills more than once a week. Meischke, et. al. (2010) also found that during these calls, dispatchers had to repeat information. In consequence, these researchers found a significant difference in the time it took to dispatch different types of emergency medical technician crews to those with limited English skills compared to those who were fluent, the consequences of which will need to be investigated further. Mieschke et. al. (2010) did suggest, however, that dispatchers’ techniques for communicating with callers of limited English proficiency may not be as effective, since the language barrier can negate the usefulness of a technique, such as repeating a question or statement, in order to calm a distressed caller.

Understanding distrust and gaining trust are important

Another barrier in Houston and other cities that arises during and following natural disasters between those with no or limited English facility, including unauthorized immigrants, and government representatives, is distrust. The Migration Policy Institute has reported that a majority of Houston area immigrants lack English proficiency, which means there is significant overlap between those populations and unauthorized immigrant populations on this critical criterion (Capps, et. al., 2015). These two factors together exacerbate distrust of government representatives. Put yourself in an unauthorized immigrant’s shoes and imagine you had just lost your home and belongings or had otherwise suffered catastrophically from a storm or fire and a complete stranger with a government-agency logo on their shirt walked up to you speaking a language you do not command. During a vulnerable time, such as in the aftermath of such a disaster, how would you know whether that person is trustworthy?

The Department of Homeland Security has defined unauthorized immigrants as, “foreign-born non-citizens who are not legal residents” (Department of Homeland Security, 2017). There are about 575,000 unauthorized immigrants in the Houston area (Sacchetti, 2017). This translates to 1 in 10 Houston metro residents being unauthorized (Florido, 2017).

For this reason alone, it is important for Houston’s emergency managers to consider how immigrant communities could be apprehensive and fearful of government activities, rather than assume that public officials will be received with open arms during relief and recovery efforts. Residents may not know how to identify official emergency responders, they may be unauthorized to be in the country or they may have previous life experiences that have sown a distrust in police or other government representatives (Florida Department of Health Office of Minority Health, 2013). For example, many unauthorized immigrants in Houston were afraid to seek shelter following Hurricane Harvey because they feared U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees, who were assisting with search and rescue. As a result, many residents waited in contaminated water for the storm to abate, when they could have obtained warm and dry shelter. Indeed, representatives of Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha (Spanish “For Families and Their Education,” or FIEL), a Houston, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group, received dozens of calls from residents asking whom they could trust, as relief efforts were underway (Florido, 2017).

As a general rule, non-English speakers did not trust federal immigration and emergency management officials. More, many did not trust Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, even as he insisted that those receiving assistance would not be subject to identification checks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection also announced they would not check immigration documents at shelters. Nonetheless, these statements did little to allay residents’ fears predicated on the fact that prior to Hurricane Harvey, there were widespread reports of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting and detaining at least 6,500 immigrants in the Houston area (Straw, 2017).

Solutions for local governments

Language and cultural barriers can exacerbate a complicated recovery. Houston officially provides services in five languages, including Spanish and Vietnamese, but interpreters are often stretched thin during emergencies. Families may have members who are fluent in English, but these may be children and it is unrealistic to rely on young people to interpret information accurately and convey it to their families. Local governments should focus their planning on programs that will increase language proficiency in both directions.  For Houston, this implies that the city should work to provide opportunities for its residents needing to acquire more English proficiency andalso, train responders fluent in English to speak and read Spanish and Vietnamese.

City officials should also focus on partnering with radio, television and other media companies already serving immigrant communities to distribute important emergency messages in their native languages and to build trust by engaging with them outside of disaster situations to describe city structures and programs aimed at relief and recovery. That is, put more generally, Houston should work with firms with ties to non-English speaking communities to help them develop and maintain emergency communication programs. Vietnamese Americans in Houston, for example, have access to only one radio station that broadcasts in Vietnamese. And that outlet, Saigon Radio (KREH 900-AM), briefly stopped broadcasting during Hurricane Harvey. If Saigon Radio had not been able to resume service, many members of the city’s Vietnamese community would have been unable to obtain information and receive updates from public officials in their preferred language (Lam, 2017). The Houston Police Department cooperated with Saigon Radio in summer 2017 to discuss crime prevention efforts in the community, suggesting that such collaboration can occur. Such efforts should be expanded (Kragie, 2017). To help alleviate the burden on a single broadcasting outlet when only one such exists, Houston and other cities confronting a similar scenario should work to incentivize new forms of emergency broadcasting targeted to non-English speaking residents.

To address the distrust among residents arising from the language divide and unauthorized immigration status, public officials need to work with churches, community centers and local immigrant advocacy organizations, such as FIEL Houston to develop ties and ongoing communication channels. Words need to be backed up with actions. In 2011, Houston’s Department of Health and Human Services partnered with community organizations to explore ways to communicate more effectively with citizens and residents. Today, many of the city’s preparedness guides are published online in several languages as a result. For its part, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has recommended community mapping as a way to investigate empirically a neighborhood’s resources and capabilities. Such efforts involve documenting critical infrastructure, resident makeup and types of buildings and businesses that could store supplies or be used to feed responders and residents during or following emergencies (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2011). Houston should also recruit members of the community to be trained in emergency response as bridges between government representatives, first responders and residents. This step is key because when disaster strikes, residents are often the first to help other residents. Houston has conducted disaster preparedness classes in Spanish for several years and began to do so in Vietnamese in 2014 (Ready Houston, 2014).  These initiatives should be strongly supported and expanded.

Finally, any city-sponsored emergency management planning should reflect the needs of Houston’s immigrant communities and address them in practical ways, including continuing efforts to address the lingual divide. Communities with low English proficiency and significant populations of unauthorized immigrants in Houston are especially vulnerable to natural disasters, and public safety requires that city officials take this situation into consideration in their planning. Indeed, emergency response planning for communities evidencing language and cultural barriers requires managers to think beyond an English language-centric perspective. It requires them to consider the many reasons why they must work harder to gain the trust of community members, and how vital those efforts are for effective response to emergencies.


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Dallas News Staff, 2017. Harvey death toll grows as floodwaters drop in Houston, rise in Beaumont. Dallas Morning News. [Online] [Accessed October 9, 2017]

Cummins, E., 2017. Irma may have been the bigger storm, but the damage from Harvey’s storm surge will last for years. Slate, September 13. [Online] [Accessed October 1, 2017]

Pew National Trusts, 2017.  Vietnamese in the U.S. Fact Sheet. [Online] Retrieved from [Accessed October 1, 2017]

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Joanne Tang

Joanne Tang is currently pursuing her Master of Public Administration and a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security. During her time at Virginia Tech, she has begun to explore the connections among affordable housing, environmental protection and emergency management. She is particularly interested in city resilience and protecting critical infrastructure from natural and human-made disasters. She currently works in strategic communication and policy within the homeland security community. In addition to her professional focus, she enjoys writing, hiking and photography. She can be found on Twitter at @joanneliveshere.

Publication Date

October 12, 2017