A group of men and women in traditional Mexican clothing stand in a parking lot

In an Emergency, Whom do you Trust?

November 19, 2018
Spanish-speaking residents affected by the 2017 wildfires in California struggled to get information

The 2017 wildfires in Northern California were the most destructive in the state’s history. More than 5,600 structures were destroyed, damages exceeded $2 billion, and 44 people lost their lives. Like the majority of residents in the affected region, many Latino community members, who comprise almost a third of the population in the North Bay region, experienced devastating loss. However, their difficulties were exacerbated by a lack of access to emergency and recovery information in their primary language, Spanish.

“I learned (about the fires) because relatives called from Mexico,” said a Calistoga resident.

“If it wasn’t for a phone call I received from a friend, who knows if I would still be here,” said a Napa resident who lives in a secluded neighborhood to which the fires came precariously close.

To understand the challenges the Spanish-speaking population faced in accessing information during the fires, Internews conducted an information ecosystem assessment, the results of which are detailed in a report – Desconectado: How Emergency Information Got Lost In Translation During The Northern California Wildfires. The assessment was conducted through Listening Circles and surveys and by visiting local media and interviewing community leaders and activists.

The Spanish speaking population in the North Bay, approximately a quarter of whom are undocumented, grew under a series of labor agreements between the US and Mexico when immigrants began working in the wine industry. While some lost houses in the fires, many more worked in housekeeping and gardening jobs in neighborhoods that burned down, or at restaurants and vineyards that were damaged, and were left without paychecks for weeks or months.

The Spanish-speaking population struggled to get news in Spanish on where the fires were spreading, how to stay safe, and how to access aid and services. Misinformation and rumors made it even more difficult - including stories about shelters asking for valid picture IDs and social security numbers, and that an undocumented Latino man had caused the initial fire.

“We didn’t have any electricity or water,” said a young woman from Sonoma. “We were really afraid to ask for help because we did not know the language.”

Undocumented residents were fearful of seeking help at shelters and crisis centers due to rumors that ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) might be present. A number of residents continued to work outside while the fires were ongoing, without masks, as they didn’t know where to get them, how to protect themselves or what to say to their employers.

“The fear I felt from not speaking English is something I had never felt before,” said a resident of the area affected by the fire.

Local radio station provides a lifeline

The assessment found that Santa Rosa-based bilingual community radio station KBBF was a critical resource. When news of the wildfires began to disseminate, KBBF station manager Edgar Avila turned his community programming into a 24/7 Spanish-language emergency news format as families looked desperately for information they could understand. For many families it was the only way to know what was happening. Napa resident Elba Gonzalez-Mares said her mom dragged an old battery-powered radio out of storage. “And she was listening to KBBF,” said Gonzalez-Mares.

Not only did the station become an information resource, it also became a hub for all sorts of resources as families dropped off food, clothes, water, and other amenities. Because many Latino families were not able to access the shelters – either because they were afraid that ICE might be present, they didn’t know where they were, or they didn’t feel comfortable as they lacked linguistic and culturally appropriate assistance – many came to KBBF instead to access emergency supplies.

Trusted people as sources of information

Latino community members “trust people” according to Elba Gonzalez-Mares, the Executive Director of a health initiative in Napa County. Rafael Vazquez is one of those people. He’s an outreach coordinator at Santa Rosa Community College and a prolific community news sharer. He disseminates bilingual information on topics relevant to local Latino families like immigration, housing, and jobs via a radio show on KBBF, a popular Facebook group called DACA Sonoma County, a text messaging system that reaches hundreds of local Latino residents, and he regularly organizes information events that take place at his college.

Another trusted source of information for the Latino community is Belia Ramos, one of two Latino Napa County Supervisors. During the wildfires, she made sure she was sharing official emergency information in Spanish on as many bilingual outlets as possible. One of her main goals was to get the word out that she had assurances from federal agencies that immigration authorities would not be present at relief shelters. She did everything to get that message out, including “knocking on car windows in the Target parking lot.”

Suggestions for future disaster response

Desconectado includes some suggestions for how to address the difficulty Spanish-speaking people had getting access to information during the wildfires. The main one is to ensure the Spanish-speaking community has a voice at the table by including representation from the community in planning future disaster response.

Other suggestions are to make sure messaging and links are in Spanish and that translations are culturally competent, as well as to utilize trusted Facebook pages to share information. Also, since many Spanish-speaking residents use TV as their main source of information, TV should be used for emergency broadcasting information in Spanish.

Read the full report.

The information needs assessment was funded as part of a grant from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.