Each hurricane season, eastern North Carolina braces for the worst. But emergency planning, response and recovery efforts neglect a major marginalized population: rural Latinos. Without emergency alerts in their language or recovery support specific to community needs, immigrant workers and families navigate an emergency management system that fails to include them, putting their jobs and livelihoods on the line to survive a disaster and its aftermath.

This story was originally published by Enlace Latino NC. This series examines what happens to rural Latinos before, during and after natural disasters, and how some nonprofits and community groups are pushing for inclusive emergency preparedness, response and recovery solutions.

After clocking out of a long shift at a hog farm, Lucia Mondragón and her teenage daughter stopped into Walmart on the night of Oct. 6, 2016 for their weekly grocery shopping. As Mondragón pushed a cart through the store, she noticed other shoppers frantically raiding the shelves. Hurricane Matthew was making landfall near her home in Cumberland County, yet Mondragón had no idea.

Her daughter, Alisson Herrarte, pulled out her cell phone and searched the web for what the emergency could be.

“All the information appeared in English,” she said in Spanish. “At that time, I didn’t know the language.” 

With no English proficiency, Mondragón, her husband and two children had immigrated from El Salvador two months earlier. This would be the family’s first brush with a deadly storm, but not the last. 

“We were completely unaware and unprepared,” Mondragón said of the hurricane and destructive floods that followed.Rural eastern North Carolina counties do not deliver real-time emergency alerts and evacuation orders in Spanish ahead of hurricanes and natural disasters

Latino immigrants, a growing community in rural eastern North Carolina, are no strangers to Mondragón’s terrifying experience. Since Matthew in 2016, North Carolina has experienced several catastrophic hurricanes, including Florence and Michael in 2018, Dorian in 2019 and, most recently, Hurricane Isaias this August. So far the state has received more than $23 billion in federal funds to help recover from these storms. 

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is expected to be among the worst on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Hurricane Isaias brought six tornadoes to North Carolina, which killed two people. 

Despite this history with disaster and a substantial Latino population, rural eastern North Carolina counties do not deliver real-time emergency alerts and evacuation orders in Spanish ahead of hurricanes and natural disasters, a review of 40 county emergency management sites and several interviews with six county and state emergency officials by Enlace Latino NC has found. 

This means that ahead of a major disaster Spanish-speaking immigrants are not alerted to protect themselves, their families and property. 

The Department of North Carolina Emergency Management punts this responsibility to individual counties, but it noted that the state provides them with guidance. County officials say they look to the state for guidance. But there isn’t a coordinated effort among emergency officials — local, state and federal — to identify non-English speaking immigrant communities and include them in emergency preparedness plans, leaving vulnerable communities at greater risk without crucial, life-saving information that everyone else receives. However, the N.C. Dept. of Emergency Management has made some changes including adding two translators to its staff in 2020.

Ernie Abbott, former general counsel for FEMA, told Enlace Latino NC that without an effective communication strategy in emergency preparedness, local governments are setting their own communities up for disaster.

“Disaster planning guidance developed since Hurricane Katrina makes it pretty clear that [if] preparedness plans don’t take into account the needs of – and ways to communicate with – the whole population in your community, the plans will fail.”

Latinos make up a growing sector of the communities in North Carolina, nearing 1 million with 997,000 residents in 2018. According to the U.S. Census, 10 rural counties in North Carolina experienced steady growth since 2010 that can be attributed entirely to Latino immigrants. This includes four eastern counties: Duplin, Wayne, Sampson and Wilson.

After Hurricane Florence in 2018, flooding in Greene County took several weeks to subside in a mobile home park where many families from Mexico and Central America live. Photo by Justin Cook.

Still, local emergency management does not prioritize Spanish-language communication. At the federal level, where the law and policies assert language access must be a priority, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) prioritize response and recovery over prevention and preparedness.

The Stafford Act, the statutory authority for most federal disaster response, requires that FEMA works with state and local governments to identify population groups with limited English proficiency (LEP) and include Spanish and other languages in disaster planning.

But these policies fall short because there’s no oversight to ensure that state and local officials are identifying vulnerable LEP communities, even though North Carolina has received billions of dollars in federal funds in recent years.The lack of access to information needed before a disaster further disenfranchises immigrants in isolated rural pockets

In response to questions about the Stafford Act and any efforts to work with the state and local governments to address these issues, FEMA Spokesperson Daniel Llargués wrote via email: “Preparedness is a shared responsibility across federal, state, local, tribal and territorial governments; the private sector; non-governmental organizations and the American people. The optimal disaster response is locally executed, state managed, and federally supported.”  

FEMA’s mission is to help people before, during and after a disaster.

State and local officials can request FEMA’s help because the agency has the resources and expertise to identify vulnerable communities and provide information in a language they understand. But according to the FEMA spokesperson: “As of today we do not have any requests from the state or counties in North Carolina to identify Spanish-speaking communities.” 

The lack of access to information needed before a disaster further disenfranchises immigrants in isolated rural pockets. And it speaks to a disconnect in communicating with rural Latino residents recently unveiled by the most pressing emergency: the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis adds another layer of vulnerability to these eastern North Carolina communities at a time when workers on farms and in meat-packing plants are considered essential but bear the highest risk of contracting the virus.

“The collective mental health crisis that we are facing in our communities is a real problem,” Lariza Garzón, director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFwM), told Enlace Latino NC in April. “The coronavirus is another layer to the economic crisis after hurricanes, to anti-immigrant policies, to not having food security.”

After a storm, the largely Latino immigrant workforce and their families are left out of the equation as the devastation is often measured by numbers, property loss and the financial hit to the agriculture industry. They feel neglected and discriminated against by local officials and often their employers, workers and advocates said. 

Edelmira Segovia, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who works on hurricane recovery, sees it as a slight to her community. 

“Communication in Spanish becomes an afterthought,” she said. “That notion that we are here temporarily, that we’re going away — it’s still rooted. I don’t see actions that put Latinx in the same line [as others].”

No information for immigrants

Hurricane Matthew landed in southeastern North Carolina as a Category 1 storm in 2016, causing more than $2 billion in damages and killing at least 28 people.

Cumberland County was among six eastern counties hit the hardest by that hurricane. That’s where Mondragón, the woman from El Salvador, and her family lives.

Leaving Walmart that night, water quickly rose on the dark drive home, flooding the rural roads that Mondragón had just learned to navigate. A bridge collapsed shortly after she drove over it, she said. The family of four spent the night without any power, cooking over a wood fire they built on the patio floor, improvised from backyard wood scraps. 

“My son cried all night, shaking with fear,” Mondragón said, noting the family barely slept. 

Two years after Matthew, Hurricane Florence ripped through the state in September 2018 causing historic levels of flooding in 27 eastern counties. 

Four out of five Latino residents said they have been directly affected by these hurricanes, according to a survey conducted by the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry. None of them had ever received an emergency alert or evacuation order. Most had no information on how to prepare, and were left stranded with nowhere to turn for help: Four out of five Latinos have been affected by hurricanes in eastern N.C., but never received an emergency alert.

A total of 239 Latino farmworkers living in 10 counties participated in the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry surveys conducted in September 2019. 

In the surveys, Latinos said they were stranded at flooded farmworker camps without any food while others shared they lost their trailer homes and had to sleep in cars or abandoned school buses for at least one night or more. 

Rural immigrant residents who have lived through hurricanes expressed how critical information ahead of the storm would empower them to make the right decisions for themselves and their families, according to another focus group with 40 participants conducted in 2019 by Enlace Latino NC. The residents represented five counties: Duplin, Wayne, Harnett, Pender and Lenoir.

One impression is that their livelihoods don’t matter to local government officials — and in the communities where they live.  

“Information is delivered where the rich people and important companies are located,” one immigrant said. Another quickly chimed in: “Poor communities don’t receive any information.”

Lucia Mondragón and other rural residents who weren’t aware of oncoming hurricanes expressed driving over roads only to find them collapsed hours later. Photo by Walter Gomez.

The majority of the workers told Enlace Latino NC that they were on their job sites — poultry plants, hog farms or in the fields — the moment a hurricane arrived. Most temporary visa holders didn’t have a vehicle to get to the store and relied on their supervisors to take them, or never got the chance to go.

One farmworker said his boss thought of his crops first and his employees last. Another worker at a hog facility said during Hurricane Florence he and his fellow workers were forced to stay and take care of the pigs or else they would lose their jobs indefinitely.

“I spent three days on that farm before I could help my family,” he says. “That caused me to become sick with insomnia and depression.”

Unclear protocol ignores immigrants

Emergency alerts are both text alerts and audio messages that residents sign up for to receive on their mobile phones or landlines. Audio messages are what most counties used, according to the county emergency managers who spoke to Enlace Latino NC, including Bladen, Craven, Duplin, Harnett and Pender. The alerts — such as evacuation orders —  are written and recorded by the emergency management teams in each county.

But these alerts are only in English and county officials have done little to provide them to non-English speaking communities. 

Pender County, a southern coastal county among the highest risk for flooding, was hard-hit as Hurricane Florence plowed through the state in 2018. When Enlace Latino NC asked Tammy Proctor, a spokesperson for Pender County, if the county’s emergency alert system is available in Spanish, she answered: “I’ve never had that asked before.” 

This year, Duplin County plans to include Spanish in its alert system for the first time, according to Matthew Barwick, Duplin County emergency manager. His department relies on the health department and social services to provide translations. But he said there’s no designated employee to create alerts in Spanish. It remains unclear how the real-time alerts will be translated on the spot in the event of an emergency. 

Latinos make up 23 percent of Duplin County, according to the Census data. The county is home to more than 800 farms and ranks ninth in the nation for the highest market value of agricultural products including livestock and poultry. Duplin is home to a Butterball poultry processing plant, which employs more than 3,000 workers, including much of the local immigrant population predominantly from Mexico, Central America and Haiti. When Enlace Latino NC asked a spokesperson for Pender County, if the emergency alert system is available in Spanish, she answered: “I’ve never had that asked before.”

Counties purchase emergency notification systems from private companies, like New York-based Hyper-Reach used by Duplin County. The service costs taxpayers $13,800 annually, paid through the county’s general fund.

Several county managers told Enlace Latino NC that they use the Facebook translation button to promote preparedness material on social media. But county officials couldn’t provide user data showing that Spanish-speaking users have visited the pages.

“Even though the county has a Facebook page, people don’t know to look there,” an immigrant who participated in a focus group conducted by Enlace Latino NC says. “And there is no time to spend on it. They put all the information in English.”

Courtney Peragallo, a public health researcher with the Office of Rural Health at the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, met with Pender County farmworkers to assess their experiences with storms and helped emergency officials cross-reference their flood zone map, which revealed that “virtually every single worker resides in a flood zone year round.”  
But on the Pender County website, all text appears in English, including information for the most recent Hurricane Isaias. A small rectangular button at the bottom of the screen gives the option to translate by software.

Peragallo said she has navigated these websites too. “Just because it is ‘available’ in Spanish does not mean that the directions were simplified and easy to understand and this is a major challenge.”

The coronavirus pandemic marked a turning point for some public emergency management offices to include Spanish-language information for the first time in 2020, though it is limited. Online emergency information is machine-translated, according to county emergency managers. Of the 40 websites reviewed by Enlace Latino NC, six include a drop-down menu for translation: Craven, Duplin, PenderSampsonCamden and Nash. Pasquotank County includes the state’s Know Your Zone/Conozca Su Zona links in Spanish. Washington County links to the Spanish version of the Ready NC page.

The floods lasted for days. The photo was taken at a mobile home park in Duplin County, North Carolina, following Hurricane Florence in 2018. Photo by Walter Gómez

The N.C. Dept. of Emergency Management hurricane guide has been translated into Spanish for the first time this year. The state also launched an interactive Know Your Zone/Conozca Su Zona map to help residents in the 20 coastal counties assess flood risk. But it does not reach 20 more neighboring counties, the majority of which have experienced previous storms’ devastation. Evacuation orders are in English.

Neglecting the most vulnerable

Experts in inclusive emergency management practices say local government officials have a responsibility to the public as a whole, no matter who they are, and they must include language access in their emergency plans from the start.

Duplin County shared the most recent meeting minutes of the county’s emergency planning committee with Enlace Latino NC. None of the community stakeholders present were Latinos or representatives of Latino community organizations.

The whole concept of excluding community members operates against FEMA’s “whole community approach” as well as policies put in place after the country’s biggest natural disaster: Hurricane Katrina.

John Cooper is a Texas-based emergency planner and researcher. He works on inclusive emergency preparedness for marginalized communities, including past research in N.C. He said the emergency planning field is “largely white-male” and this affects planning because those who are most at risk are not invited to the table. (Cooper is Black.)

“In a place like North Carolina, even if you didn’t have the empirical research saying you ought to do these things, they’ve been through enough disasters to know by now,” Cooper said.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, it revealed weaknesses in the nation’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from catastrophic disasters. It also showed that a one-size-fits-all model often results in poor outcomes for certain groups of people, including those with disabilities or limited English proficiency, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.  

The Post-Katrina Reform Act was enacted to address various shortcomings and reinforce past policies while specifically including limited English proficient (LEP) people. It is based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin by recipients of federal financial assistance. 

“It is actually the law,” said Daesy Behrhorst, referring to Title VI. Behrhorst, a Guatemalan immigrant, helped found the Louisiana Language Access Coalition (LLAC). “If you receive federal funds — and it doesn’t matter how much — you have to do right by those funds by providing language access.”

LLAC emerged in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, created the Latino Forum of New Orleans and members of the Spanish-, Vietnamese- and Portuguese-speaking communities. The group addresses language access issues in public policy and public services, schools and community organizations. 

But it has been a “baby steps” process for advocates who must constantly remind local governments that it is the law. 

“It was a lot of saying ‘this is your job, this is not our job. You should be translating this. This needs to be a budget item for you. You are skirting law by not doing this, and using federal dollars,’” said Behrhorst. “You have to be able to put that out there and have them understand the repercussions of not doing that.”

County emergency departments rely on other county offices, like the county health department or social services, to serve as the Spanish-language translators. 

Counties say they are short-staffed and underfunded. N.C. Emergency Management spokesperson Keith Acree concurs that federal funding for emergency preparedness “pales in comparison” to what the state receives in recovery money. 

Counties can apply for annual FEMA Emergency Management Preparedness Grants (EMPG). All 40 eastern N.C. counties applied for and received FEMA EMPG funds in 2020, with an average of $46,000 for each county. 

FEMA’s 2020 preparedness grants manual suggests that states and counties could use funds to integrate language access in their emergency preparedness plans. None of the county emergency management managers who spoke to Enlace Latino NC had considered using funds to hire a Spanish translator. 

In Bladen County, emergency management director Nathan Dowless says “we deal with the Spanish-speaking population every day.” 

“We have had several come into the office who have their kid with them who will translate,” he said. Dowless acknowledges this is not ideal. DOJ guidance makes it clear that children “must not be relied upon to serve as interpreters and translators.”

Dowless creates each alert message himself. When asked if his department would offer the emergency alert system in Spanish, he said he could “probably look into it.”

Behrhorst said natural disasters are a life or death situation and that’s why they need to include community members — non-English-speaking immigrants especially — to participate in planning meetings as part of the public decision-making process.

“You’re not talking about the other. That, to me, makes it a very different fight than ‘you’re just not meeting the Civil Rights Act,’ which sounds high falutin for a lot of people. It’s discrimination. That’s exactly what it is.”

Communities joining forces to survive

Four years and at least three hurricanes later, Mondragón, the immigrant from El Salvador who had her first encounter with a hurricane in 2016, still doesn’t receive specific local alerts or evacuation orders from the county where she lives in Spanish. 

“As Latinos, we are not given any information,” she said. 

Mondragón has since left her agriculture job and joined the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFwM) staff as a program assistant. She identifies and supports the mental health needs of her immigrant community and helps organize the group’s trusted promotoresor volunteer community health workers. 

As COVID-19 surges through their communities, Mondragón and her peer team of promotores have been gathering virtually, using EFwM as a platform to host online information sessions about the pandemic — and now, hurricanes. 

Since 2019, Garzón, Mondragón and their colleagues have worked on a program to prepare for disasters in the Latino community. Garzón points out that several Latino families primarily speak indigenous languages like Mixtec and Mam, and she is focused on reaching out to them as well. They’ve launched virtual workshops three times a month to discuss hurricane preparedness.

“Maybe this will give everyone more confidence, or help them alleviate a bit of that fear,” Mondragón said.

The first session in July was attended by nearly 30 people. People hopped onto the Zoom call from wherever they were in the moment: some were still picking crops in the field, their white headphones dangling over the screen as they threw blueberries into a basket. One mother set her phone at the stove, stirring a pot in between participating in the discussion. 

The group went over the basics of community organizing and the roles they each had to support each other in moments of disaster. 

At the third meeting, almost 50 people showed up. Delia Jovel, a Salvadoran immigrant and popular education consultant led a presentation on deciphering the English-language emergency alerts and their meanings in Spanish, such as the difference between an alert and a warning and how to determine when to evacuate.

As group members asked questions about how to prepare and disseminate information, she reminded the group of the most important thing on their to-do list if faced with a storm: communicate with each other.

“When you’re thinking ‘I’m incapable of making a decision on my own’ or you are unsure of what to do, remember that you have a support network,” said Jovel. “This is the moment to trust your community.”

This watchdog report, the first in a series, was produced with the support of 
Investigative Editing Corps, a project that helps local news organizations do investigative reporting. This reporting project is funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab. 

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