ON MAY 31, a deadly storm forced television producer Martin Bedoya and fellow staffers at Spanish-language station Accion Oklahoma to take cover underground. The broadcast went off the air for several hours that day. Staff members continued to report on the radio, translating messages from the National Weather Service, which does not broadcast its severe weather information in Spanish.
In Oklahoma, access to severe weather information can mean life or death, and death hit the Hispanic community hard May 31.
Nine of the 23 deaths that day came from Oklahoma’s growing Guatemalan community, many of whom are unfamiliar with the fury of the state’s spring storms. Five of the dead were children, including a 17-day-old infant.
Since then, efforts have been made to improve communication with Spanish speakers during severe weather outbreaks. The American Red Cross of Central and Western Oklahoma hired two bilingual staffers. Accion Oklahoma is increasing it social media collaboration with the National Weather Service. And the television station, a Telemundo affiliate, purchased a new weather forecast system and hired a new Spanish-speaking meteorologist, its first.
Bedoya, now the station’s news director, considers himself a public servant. He feels strongly that all people deserve access to severe weather information.
“Whether you speak Spanish or English, you’re a human being.” said Bedoya, 27.
Bedoya said he and fellow staffers are determined to get the message out about severe weather and hope newcomers will seek and find that message for themselves.
“We know that a large majority of Hispanics are immigrants,” Bedoya said. “They come from different places. Do they know what the weather in Oklahoma is like? Maybe, if they’ve got a relative. Do they know what to do in a tornado? Probably not in the beginning.”
The Hispanic population in Oklahoma City is booming. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s Hispanic population doubled to just more than 100,000, more than twice the national Hispanic growth rate.
Hispanics now make up about 17 percent of the city’s population, according to 2010 census figures.
But at least 42,000 Hispanic people in Oklahoma City do not speak English well, according to research from the Pew Hispanic Center, a branch of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington.
On May 31, that led to tragedy.
The EF3 tornado that day pulled Maria Pol Martin, 26, and her 17-day-old son, Rey Chicoj Pol, out of their minivan on Interstate 40. Martin’s husband, Miguel Chicoj, said later that he had misunderstood a weather forecast on the radio, though it was a Spanish station.
He thought the tornado danger would begin about 2 a.m. Saturday rather than 2 p.m. Friday.
Elsewhere, seven relatives took cover in a storm drain near their northwest Oklahoma City home, thinking it was the safest place. None of them survived the rushing waters. Samuel Cifuentes, 33; his wife, Florinda Santos, 34; their son, Alex, 4; Florinda Santos’ cousin, Yolanda Sarat-Santos, 34; Lesly, 7; Christopher, 4; and Brandon, 8. A cousin said the Cifuentes’ had not considered the possibility of flash floods when the family sheltered in a storm drain.
In a report released this month that assessed the May 2013 severe weather and their agency’s response, National Weather Service officials said lack of severe weather information in Spanish and too few Spanish-language media outlets may have contributed to the deaths of the Spanish-speaking people.
Activists within the Hispanic community are more blunt.
“Last storm was a disaster,” said Ruben Aragon, president of the Latino Community Development Agency in Oklahoma City. “The community didn’t have direct information.”
Aragon said he feels severe weather messages from the National Weather Service should be broadcast in English and Spanish.
“Otherwise you’re going to leave people out,” he said.
The National Weather Service in Norman employs no bilingual people, said Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist. Nor are government emergency weather radio transmissions broadcast in Spanish.
“We don’t really know what our next step is going to be as far as the weather service goes,” Smith said. “We’re not equipped here to provide real-time translation or a parallel stream of information for everything we do in Spanish.”
Mike Saenz, 22, the meteorologist at Accion Oklahoma, has been working with the weather service to address those issues.
Saenz, who grew up in south Texas and covered severe flash floods for an NBC affiliate in San Antonio, is excited to play a role in keeping the community informed about the weather.
He frequently posts weather information on Facebook, and is working to create a Spanish-language brochure that contains severe weather basics.
“We explain the difference between a watch and a warning, and have contact information for various agencies, like the Red Cross, so they don’t go into a complete panic mode,” Saenz said.
Recently, Saenz translated a social media tornado drill for the weather service from English to Spanish, which the weather service posted on Facebook.
The post went up on Saenz’s personal Facebook page and the station’s.
The American Red Cross also made changes to get severe weather information to those who speak Spanish, including hiring two new bilingual staffers to strengthen outreach with the Hispanic community on disaster preparedness.
Those efforts include a severe weather preparedness fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Oklahoma City Community College Capitol Hill Center, 123 SW 25, in the gymnasium.
The family-friendly event will cover the basics — things like preparing a disaster plan and an emergency kit and understanding severe weather information, said Deidra Johnson, who the Red Cross hired, along with Mario Medrano, as a bilingual community recovery and resiliency lead specialist.
Bedoya, the news director, said groups seeking to reach the Hispanic community are welcome to approach his station for guidance.
“My goal is to educate people,” he said.
•Red Cross: Bilingual storm preparedness training for the public, regardless of citizenship status, is offered periodically by the Red Cross. For more information about storm outreach to Spanish-speakers, call the Red Cross at (405) 228-9500, or the Integris Hispanic Initiative at (405) 636-7503 or go to vivaintegris.com.
•Latino Community Development Agency: The agency provides translators and assistance to Spanish-speaking families free of charge. For more information, call (405) 236-0701 or go online to lcdaok.org.