Can State Reach Spanish Speakers in an Emergency?

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By Doug Maine
Were state residents who speak only Spanish adequately informed about safety measures and procedures before, during and after Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast last fall?
That’s what Jaime Gómez, dean of Eastern Connecticut State University ‘s School of Education and Professional Studies, hopes to learn from a new study he is undertaking.
Its goals are to see how well Spanish-language media did in keeping the Spanish-speaking community informed about safety measures and procedures and determine how effective the state government was in implementing communication protocols to reach marginalized monolingual Spanish-speaking populations.
Gómez, a communications professor whose expertise includes crisis communication, said, “When Hurricane Sandy came along, I witnessed all this crisis communication on the English-language channels, but I never saw anything on the main (Spanish-language) channels, and this is where the idea came from.”
“I know there’s quite a sizable population of Hispanics that speaks only Spanish, particularly in the Hartford and Windham areas, Gómez said. “I spoke to some Spanish-speaking people, and they said they had a hard time finding information.”
In some families, “members of the older generation don’t speak English, and they rely on the younger generation,” he added.
Overall, he said the state emergency management officials’ efforts were quite efficient in getting information out to English speakers. But he wondered whether Spanish speakers were informed about the storm’s progress and the need to evacuate some areas.
There was some effort to get the word out to the Spanish-speaking community.
During Sandy, Scott DeVico, a spokesman for the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said, “We utilized Univisión as a mechanism to get the word out to the Spanish-speaking population in the state.”
Gómez is not undertaking the emergency alert project alone. The study has the support of Lourdes Montalvo, who represents Windham on the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, and Diana Rios, an associate professor of communication sciences at the University of Connecticut .
The study will have a resource-based accountability component, which means focusing on the end results and then working backwards to the means, in order to determine what, if any, changes in procedures or resource-allocation are necessary.
To keep things manageable, the study will not encompass the entire state. “We’re going to do a limited study, to find out what happened in New London and Windham,” Gómez said.
He plans to have meetings to gather input from state officials, representatives of the Spanish-language media and members of Latino community organizations, in an effort to get answers to three broad questions:
• How effective was the state government in its interaction with the Spanish-language media during Sandy ? Did the state provide informational material in Spanish?
• What were the actions taken by the Spanish-language media to inform their audiences about the emergency?
• How does the community perceive governmental and media efforts to reach them?
Some Spanish-language newspapers, radio stations and television stations, as well as state officials, may have already thought about what they did to inform Spanish-speakers about Sandy and changes they could make so they do better in the event of an emergency of similar magnitude,  Gómez said.
“Then the communities can tell us how they felt, whether they felt secure,” providing anecdotal information about their efforts to stay informed about Sandy , which could be critical or supportive of the Spanish-language media and the state, he said.
Gómez said his hope is, “that we find solutions and effective ways when we come together and collect all of this criticism and praise and support and ideas.
“It’s an exercise in improving communication in the community,” he said. “There’s a lot of things out there that we don’t know.”
“Hopefully, there will not be any more Sandys,” Gómez said. But should the state face a threat of similar proportions, “we just want to find out if we can do more.”

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