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Lack of Bilingual Communication Hampered Relief Efforts After Halloween Floods

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News
Immediately after the waters receded Thursday morning, residents and teachers say there was a lack of communication between emergency responders and residents.

Residents and teachers at Perez Elementary say little information was distributed to residents immediately after flooding in Austin's Onion Creek and Dove Springs neighborhoods last week, leaving some residents confused and unsure where to turn — especially those who don't speak English.

When Pompilio Perez left his home in Dove Springs to go to work at 5 a.m. last Thursday morning. It was raining, but there was no sign of flooding. Thirty minutes later he couldn’t even drive down his own street where his wife, Ana, and his three children were at home. Ana Perez and her kids were rescued from their roof and, by Saturday, they had returned. At that point, she says, they hadn’t received any help.

“No one has come to talk to us," Perez says. "Our neighbor gave us some information, but she is not affiliated with a rescue effort or anything like that. To be honest with you, no one has stopped by — not from the Red Cross or from the police department."

On Thursday morning, teachers at Perez Elementary say they met many parents and residents who had no idea how to get help immediately after the flood.  Fifth grade teacher Laura Rodriguez says they started walking door-to-door, giving out information. 

“And just started telling people, ‘Do you know this, has anyone come by?’ and a lot of people were like, ‘No you guys are the first people to even come and say you guys have resources...we didn’t even know we could dial 311,’" she says.

Teacher Melissa Ruffino says some first responders didn’t seem to have answers either.

“It very much felt like — and we were told this — the first day they were on their own. There would be no one to help them. And that slowly throughout the weekend people would come," Ruffino says.

As the weekend progressed, more and more people arrived to help, but Rodriguez says outreach was still lacking.

“We were told as we approached some people, 'Oh, we’re spreading messages on news through Facebook, Twitter.' But people don’t have power, electricity, some of them don’t have data plans,” said Rodriguez.

Ruffino says the entire situation raised a lot of concerns.

We have it where shelters are being set up really quickly and churches are trying to get food together and no one knew anything," she says.

Then there’s the issue of the language barrier. About two-thirds of Dove Springs residents are Hispanic. There is a large undocumented population, and many residents do not speak English.

At a press conference Sunday, Police Chief Art Acevedo was the only official who spoke Spanish—and local Red Cross Director Marty McKellips acknowledged the challenges of only being able to give information in English.

“I wish I could say this in Spanish like Chief Acevedo, but we are not going to ask you about your immigration status. We do not care about that. Come forward and get the help you need," she said.

The city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management website is only written in English and does not offer translation on its site.

Roy Sedwick is the Executive Director of Texas Floodplain Management Association and a member of the Texas Flash Flood Coalition. He says there’s a concern among the coalition that non-English speakers don’t get information during an emergency or "understand what’s going on with the flooding situation, whether they should evacuate or stay put. There are a lot of lessons learned, but as we move forward we’re going to start discussing these things and see if there’s not ways they can improve.”

The City of Austin says it has bilingual staff at the flood assistance center and 311 operators are bilingual. The city also says it distributed bilingual information flyers to residents on Monday afternoon -- four days after the flood. But in the immediate aftermath, teacher Laura Rodriguez says if people knew about the shelters, they didn’t have a way to get there.

“The shelters were kind of far, their cars had been washed away, shoes had been taken by storm. There were people just walking around barefoot throughout debris," she says.

While the city offered bus service to the shelter, Rodriguez says many parents she spoke to didn’t know about it. Carolyn Perez, with the city’s Public Works department, says the city is doing everything it can to get everyone informed, especially after residents raised concerns about a lack of communication.

“We wish that that information had been more widely known sooner," she says.

While Dove Springs begins to pick up the pieces from this flood, some city officials are looking at how they can do better in the future. One official says the city is working on a new system that would reach people through text message or email in multiple languages. The city is hoping to roll out that program in the next six months.

Mose Buchele and Joy Diaz contributed to this report.

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