New York's language issues add challenge to emergency planning

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Dec 31 14:51:54 UTC 2006

New York's language issues add challenge to emergency planning

The Associated Press
Friday, December 29, 2006

With more than 8 million people, congested streets and a complex transit
system, preparing New York City for a large-scale emergency is not easy.
But the task is even tougher with residents who speak every language
imaginable and who are not always fluent in English. "You would be
hard-pressed to find a jurisdiction with as many language challenges as we
have," said Jarrod Bernstein, spokesman for the city's Office of Emergency
Management. Census estimates put the number of New Yorkers who speak
English less than very well at about 1.7 million. About 15 percent of city
households are linguistically isolated, meaning no one over the age of 14
speaks English very well. The majority of those people are covered by a
handful of main languages, including Spanish, Russian and Chinese, but
there are scores of other languages.

The city is making efforts to deal with that. The guide for a coastal
storm situation is in 11 languages, with more on the way. And 311, the
city's information number, can be used in 170 languages. The head of OEM
has gone to ethnic-language newspapers to get the message across. But
advocates for immigrants say preparing non-English speakers for a major
emergency is a challenge the city has not done enough to address. "If
there really is an epidemic, what are we going to do? We are just so
unprepared," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York
Immigration Coalition. "I would say they've done a lot of work but unless
it is systemwide and citywide, it's limited." And it is not just language,
said Adam Gurvitch, director of health advocacy for the coalition. It is
about making sure New Yorkers know services are available to them, no
matter their immigration status.

"It's not just about telling people which road to take to avoid a tsunami,
it's about penetrating the community," Gurvitch said. Bernstein said the
city's official policy is not to ask about immigration status, a policy
that would continue in any emergency. "I'm highly skeptical because in all
of the work that we do we see increasingly that immigrants are afraid of
accessing government services,"  Gurvitch said. Others say the city is
trying its best with an extraordinarily complicated issue.

Even English speakers do not always have the skills they need to be
prepared, which adds to the city's burden, said Christina Zarcadoolas,
associate clinical professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. She studied
how well people understood the city's preparedness material for a
potential evacuation during a coastal storm. People with lower levels of
literacy and education had a more difficult time understanding, not
because they could not speak English but because they did not have the
scientific or technical literacy. "I think the very next steps have to be
framing that information in a way that it is understandable and people can
take action, and the realities of people's lives have to be taken into
account," she added. That is definitely the case for people who are not
fluent in English, Gurvitch said.

"The potential for tragedy is huge if there is a disaster because so many
people are going to be left in the dark," he said. ___

On the Net:

New York City Office of Emergency Management:

New York Immigration Coalition:

New York Disaster Interfaith Services:

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