This story is in partnership with Enlace Latino NC. Léalo en español.
Sandra Galindo stood in a school gymnasium in Winston-Salem, a headset pressed against her ear. To her delight—and relief—Galindo, who primarily speaks Spanish, understood what city council members were telling the packed crowd.
That day, in February 2022, was the first time the city used live English to Spanish interpretation at a public information session.
Galindo was among the 6,000 people who were forced to evacuate their homes on Jan. 31, 2022 when nearly 600 tons of ammonium nitrate caught on fire at the Winston Weaver Fertilizer Plant.
“It was horrible. People could have died,” Galindo told Enlace Latino NC and Southerly at the February 2022 meeting.
When the fire broke out, she rushed home early from her third-shift factory job to grab her children and belongings as smoke creeped underneath the front door.
“I never knew there was such a dangerous factory near my house,” she said.
The majority of the community living near the plant is low-income people of color, mostly Black and Latinx residents. With a fire burning near the homes and businesses of many Spanish-speaking families, people could not access emergency information in their language—and the city quickly realized it wasn’t equipped or prepared to provide it.
Vivian Perez-Chandler stepped in as a community liaison and was later contracted by the city to interpret and translate information. (Translation refers to the written word; interpretation is for verbal communication.) She helped set up the headsets at the Feb. 2022 meeting. Today, Perez-Chandler runs her own business that consults with various organizations on translation and interpretation.
Language access should be a top priority in local governments’ emergency plans: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires that all federally funded services provide it. But the lack of language services during emergencies persists throughout the country.
According to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, slow progress in language access related to disaster and emergency preparedness does exist, particularly in the Northeast. Southern states showed much less progress. As the study mentions, differences are often found in the degree of local administrative capacity and commitment.
The researchers, from Arizona State University and George Mason University, assert that language access “represents a critical indicator of social vulnerability to disasters and as such is a useful metric to examine whole community principles in application. Limited language proficiency is a key barrier to individuals’ integration in a community politically, socially, and economically.”
The Weaver emergency revealed such barriers. With this framework in mind, the city of Winston-Salem hired its first-ever language access coordinator in October 2022.
Javier Correa-Vega, a native of Puerto Rico, spent nearly 18 years working in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, 16 of those as the parent involvement coordinator. He witnessed firsthand the barriers to information faced by Spanish-speaking families in the city and what he said was a “lack of communications between the Latino community and emergency personnel.”
In March of this year, Correa-Vega helped launch the city’s new language access emergency plan. He introduced new badges for city employees that read “Hablo Español,” which he wears to work every day. The badges are meant to help Spanish-speaking members of the community quickly identify city staff who speak Spanish.
After passing a language proficiency test, eligible bilingual staff receive an extra $1,100 per year to be on call with the Winston-Salem Language Access Department during emergencies like the Weaver fire.
“I’m excited because the city supports us 110%,” said Correa-Vega of his program. “They [community with limited English] don’t have to be scared. It’s welcoming for them. That’s what we want. They can feel that they’re home.”
Correa-Vega said the city currently provides interpretation in Spanish, Portuguese and American Sign Language. Both Spanish and ASL were utilized by news media during a recent shooting incident at Forsyth Technical Community College to provide simultaneous television and radio newscasts.
“That was a teachable moment for us,” he said. “The plan was activated, and we followed that plan to the dot.”
He added that the city will unveil its full emergency plan in the next few months. It will be the first time that the annual update includes an addendum about language access.
“I read the entire emergency plan twice just to make a short addendum,” he said. “I met with every single [city department] director to approve. It’s a tedious job, but we have to do it.”
However, community concerns linger over the city’s engagement with Spanish-speaking residents who still live near the fertilizer plant, which is now closed.
Community organizers take language access a step further, advocating for language justice—the practice of creating and maintaining inclusive multilingual spaces where all languages are valued equally. A toolkit released by Right to the City, a nonprofit national alliance of community organizations, states: “Simply having access will not fundamentally transform the services or structures themselves. In contrast, language justice offers a framework through which people access systems and commit to changing them.”
Community members are also hoping this access helps them better assess and help residents in the aftermath of the fire. In February 2022, Winston-Salem City Council approved a $1 million fund to offer financial aid to those displaced by the fire, with a maximum of $850,000 available for direct payments to residents and workers.
A year later, WFDD reported that two-thirds of the relief money went undistributed. Only $241,000 was given to 656 of the nearly 6,500 residents who were potentially eligible to receive aid.
Iglesia Sin Fronteras, a church in Winston-Salem, has become a massive community resource. Pastor Daniel Sostaita, a native of Argentina, said the city has not approached the church to follow up on any tangible, residual physical and mental health impacts people are coping with.
“They let a lot of time pass without making any changes,” he said. “People don’t know if the plant will continue to operate in the future. There’s no clarity around that. The question is: Do we stay or do we go?”
Iglesia Sin Fronteras partnered with researchers at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist to conduct 20 interviews over the last year with Spanish-speaking community members who live within a one-mile radius of the fire. None of the data collected has been released. According to Sostaita, pulmonary problems came up in nearly every interview. All participants live within a mile of the fertilizer plant.
“A lot of my patients live in that area,” says Dr. Callie Brown, the study’s principal researcher and a pediatrician with Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist.
Brown’s group also partnered with local nonprofit Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods to interview 20 English-speaking residents. All 40 interviews focus on families with children and households with older adults.
The research is funded by grants from WFU School of Medicine Program for Community Engaged Research and the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation. Interviewers, interviewees and community partners are being paid for their time and work. The multidisciplinary research team includes local medical experts in pediatrics and geriatrics as well as environmental engineers.
“In community meetings we kept hearing, ‘we don’t want this to be forgotten. We don’t want this to be swept under the rug,’” Brown said.
In addition to community interviews, the research includes two more facets. One is a longitudinal study of de-identified patient health records with residents living within two miles of the plant who had visited Atrium Health clinics a year prior to fire, and now again this year. Brown is looking for issues like asthma exacerbation, as well as changes in chronic health conditions. She expects about 900 residents to come up in the data.
A third component is a study on air, water and soil quality.
“This area was in the top 10% nationally for bad air pollution before the fire,” said Brown. “We’re learning more and more about how our environment impacts our health. It’s a health equity issue as well.”
In February 2023, NC Policy Watch reported on a draft Remedial Investigation Work Plan submitted by independent contractors to the NC Department of Environmental Quality that included data from the soil at Weaver Fertilizer Plant site. “Several soil samples contained high levels of arsenic; groundwater had elevated concentrations of several chemicals, including nitrite, nitrate, and benzene — the latter of which is a known carcinogen.”
Brown’s team is compiling data to share with the community as well, including infographics.
“One of our main priorities is to get this information and results back to community members,” said Brown. “They will best identify how to use this data to advocate for whatever it is they need. Then we’ll be open to how community members would like to use it.”