Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

How N.C.’s failure to translate emergency alerts inspired Latinx organizers to innovate solutions

A young girl crosses over a makeshift bridge to exit her family’s mobile home in Robeson County, N.C., after Hurricane Matthew caused severe flooding in 2016. Photo by Walter Gomez.

In the absence of government support, nonprofits and community groups servicing rural Latinx communities created their own inclusive emergency preparedness response.

This story was published in partnership with Enlace Latino NC.

Facing an unrelenting climate crisis, rural Southern communities frequently bear the heavy impact of these disasters that are exacerbated by crumbling, underfunded small-town infrastructure. For Latinx communities, barriers to information add an extra layer of complications.

Last year, Enlace Latino NC reported the series Ignored and Forgotten to highlight how emergency planning, response, and recovery efforts neglect Latinx people in rural areas. 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.                                                                         

Since Hurricane Florence hit eastern North Carolina in 2018 — and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — nonprofits and community groups have pushed for and created inclusive emergency preparedness response and recovery solutions in the absence of government support.

On Sept. 10, Enlace Latino NC and Southerly hosted a panel in Spanish with English interpretation to hear from Latinx leaders in rural immigrant communities about what they have learned about disaster planning, how they have created solutions within and for the Latinx community, and how state and local agencies have responded. Below you’ll find highlights based on themes discussed at the panel.

(You can watch the event in Spanish here and in English here.)

On community solutions:

After Hurricane Florence, Episcopal Farmworker Ministry was overrun with calls for help from farmworkers and other members of eastern North Carolina’s Latinx community. Lariza Garzón, the organization’s executive director, teamed up with Enlace Latino NC to conduct focus groups. She said that the conversations with farmworkers and Latinx families throughout the region framed future community organizing efforts. 

“We didn’t just end up with direct needs, but also what we needed for advocacy,” she said. “Such as, what are the structural issues that need to change?”

Of the many needs discussed, Garzón spoke about the importance of investing in undocumented community resources that don’t normally exist in the aftermath of a disaster. Among them: funds for undocumented households who are shut out of federal aid and access to legal support.

The community members who contacted her after Hurricane Florence and stepped up to organize resources and support in the aftermath have become key leaders in the last few years, especially during the pandemic.

“Even though COVID has been terrible to our community, it made us realize that this is also an opportunity for leadership,” Garzón said. “Many people who became health promoters worked with us after Florence and now are out in the community talking about COVID and disasters.”

On language barriers:

As we noted in our reporting series, none of North Carolina’s 100 counties offer emergency text alerts in any language other than English — this is one of the biggest barriers to information faced by immigrant communities ahead of a disaster.

As a result, the ministry for farmworkers began handing out emergency kits door-to-door with information in Spanish about how families can prepare for hurricanes. Garzón says she maintains a text message service that goes out to 1,800 families. The ministry also released a series of videos this year about hurricane preparedness and recovery in Spanish.

Mariana Vimbela of the The Red Cross Greater Carolinas Region, a disaster relief organization serving 47 counties in North Carolina and four in South Carolina, said her organization works with existing local community groups to provide aid daily during minor storms and major systems like Tropical Storm Fred, which devastated parts of western North Carolina this August.

The organization relies on volunteers, so, to better reach the Spanish-speaking population, Vimbela says they have a national initiative to recruit more bilingual volunteers. The Red Cross app is also available in Spanish.

On representation:

Panelists agreed that local emergency services aren’t prioritizing Spanish-language communication, often due to lack of resources from the state and federal government. But it goes even further: Latinx people are excluded from decision-making in emergency management.

“Every local emergency management agency works within a different infrastructure, and they decide which organizations to collaborate with,” said Juvencio Rocha-Peralta, executive director of the Association of Mexican Americans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN). “Frankly, there is no Latino voice, not even a Latino face or any specific topic [for Latinos] in the way we are talking about it here. The public infrastructure needs to have representation.”

On collaborative journalism: 

While reporting the Ignored and Forgotten series, which included focus groups in five counties across eastern North Carolina,  we heard directly from community members and shared the stories of many who participated in the focus group.

On the panel, Enlace Latino NC co-founder and editor Paola Jaramillo spoke about why collaborative journalism is necessary not only in times of crisis, but also for ways to get ahead of emergencies before they happen. 

In 2021 Enlace Latino NC launched Preparate NC, a Spanish-language resource guide for hurricane season. Not only does it include information on preparing for a disaster and recovery resources, but there are helpful lists detailing the rights of workers and undocumented immigrants in the event of a disaster.

“Communities don’t only need to work collaboratively — so do media outlets,” she said. “It’s the only way to amplify voices and reach more people, by getting people informed and educated.”

Victoria Bouloubasis covers the intersection of environmental issues and economic mobility in Latinx, immigrant, and refugee communities in North Carolina for Southerly and Enlace Latino NC. She is a journalist and filmmaker based in Durham.

This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.