Planning for Multilingual Communication When Disaster Strikes

Dynamic Language | October 31, 2017

The 2017 hurricane season was unusually busy, and the United States suffered several direct hits in just a few weeks. Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in Eastern Texas, quickly followed by Hurricane Irma’s strike in the Southeast United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Just behind Irma, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and flooded parts of the Southeast again.

While businesses, government agencies and disaster relief organizations had sufficient warning to prepare individuals in the path of these monster storms, they ran into a significant obstacle. The most densely populated areas impacted by the hurricanes included large numbers of people that spoke no English at all.

Changing Demographics Require New Focus on Language

In the Southern Florida city of Miami, 25 percent of residents do not consider themselves fluent in English, while in Houston, Texas, more than one-third of the population speaks only Spanish at home. Puerto Rico’s percentage of fluent English-speakers is even lower — 70 percent of the island’s residents only speak Spanish.

Of course, English and Spanish aren’t the only language options in the United States. There are 30 more languages spoken by 100,000 or more people nation-wide. For example, more than 3 million people speak Chinese, nearly 2 million speak Tagalog, and 1.5 million speak Vietnamese.

This diversity adds complexity to emergency planning. While it is always important to communicate with others, communication becomes critically important during disaster preparation. In the case of dangerous storms, deadly wildfires and unusual flooding, the ability to communicate is a life-or-death issue.

Best Practices for Multilingual Communication

Businesses, government agencies, and disaster relief organizations understand that preparing for disaster can mitigate the risk of injuries and loss of life. Once people are caught in the middle of the disaster, communication with emergency services is often the only chance for survival.

Disaster strikes

Organizations like Translators Without Borders can help to a point, but when back-to-back disasters occur as they did during the 2017 hurricane season, the volunteers with this organization simply can’t keep up with demand. They work hard to get information out through social media, creating tweets with critical details on preparing for impending emergency situations and sharing instructions for getting help. However, volunteer and professional translators often live and work in the same communities impacted by the disaster, which adds to the problem of limited manpower.

Some forward-thinking business and government leaders have developed new strategies for reaching all individuals in need of disaster preparedness information and emergency support. Instead of waiting for disaster to strike, they have created localized disaster-preparation materials that are ready for printing or posting online as needed. First responders are making use of crisis term databases that include words and phrases to elicit basic information from injured victims. For example, the database contains translations for questions like, “Are you okay?” and “What hurts?”

The key to maximizing the effectiveness of these solutions is to start preparing long before the need arises. Businesses, government agencies, and disaster-relief organizations can consider the types of materials and resources typically used during emergency situations, then start the process of translating and localizing content right away. Dynamic Language specializes in services that make it possible to create customized materials for the specific languages and most likely disaster scenarios that could be needed for a given business, agency or organization. Contact Us today to learn more and start preparing your organization.


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