“Take care of your families,” Samuel Cifuentes told everyone he knew.
He was filled with a sense of foreboding May 31 as bad weather moved toward Oklahoma City. He wanted to stay safe, and for others to say safe. Something was nagging him. He urged his co-workers and the families at his son's day care to be careful. He made a joke to friends about giving away his soccer shoes.
“I don't think I'm going to play soccer anymore,” he told friends, recalled Cifuentes' cousin, Octavio Aguilar.
“He had a bad feeling about that day,” Aguilar said. “He hadn't joked like that before. He was a happy guy. We played indoor soccer together every Sunday night.”
Samuel Cifuentes, 33, made a home in northwest Oklahoma City with his wife, Florinda Santos, 34, and their son, Alex, 4. The brick home with a manicured yard near NW 26 and N Meridian Avenue sits in a growing enclave of people from Guatemala. In the past decade, the city's Hispanic population has exploded, including those from the Central American nation.
Florinda Santos' cousin, Yolanda Sarat-Santos, 34, and her three children joined the family about a year ago from Arizona, after a divorce. Few in the area knew her well; she worked long hours as a maid to support her children Lesly, 7; Christopher, 4; and Brandon, 8 — as well as family back in Guatemala.
The seven relatives took cover in a storm drain near their home May 31, thinking it was the safest place. None of them survived the rushing waters.
Aguilar wonders if a better warning system for Spanish speakers could have saved their lives.
That question has started a citywide discussion about reaching out to the area's skyrocketing Hispanic population during severe weather.
False sense of security
There was a back-and-forth, a neighbor recalled, to hand the children down to outstretched arms. One by one, each was sheltered in the storm drain that ran under the road.
Now, beyond the canal, a memorial stands — little golden angel figurines for the children, colorful bouquets for their parents. A breeze volleys deflated pastel balloons tied to a rusty guardrail.
Samuel Cifuentes did not expect a flood, Aguilar said.
“That was the first time they had taken shelter under the bridge,” Aguilar said. “He thinks there is going to be a tornado close to their house. He got scared by the weathermen telling them to take shelter. He knew what happened in Moore and was just trying to keep his family safe.”
Their house had no storm shelter.
“He never, never think about the water.”
In the weeks following the barrage of May storms, representatives from the Hispanic community have met with state and city officials to discuss better ways to help Spanish-speakers find safety during severe weather. The National Weather Service office in Norman does not offer bilingual storm information.
The staff at Telemundo KTUZ-TV, the metro area's Spanish-language television station, went off air at 6:45 p.m. May 31 as the staff took cover. Sirens rang out as an EF1 tornado approached the station's south Oklahoma City office, 5101 Shields Blvd.
Multiple tornadoes raked the area at the time, including the record-breaking EF5 twister that hit near El Reno. The broadcast went back on air at 9 p.m., said Ubaldo Martinez, news director and lead anchor.
Nine of the 23 deaths in the May 31 disaster came from Oklahoma's growing Guatemalan community, many unfamiliar with the fury of spring storms. Five of those were children, including a 17-day-old infant.
As they struggled to understand storm precautions, panic ensued in many Hispanic houses.
Thousands called the Latino Community Development Agency, an Oklahoma-City based outreach center, said Ruben Aragon, president of the agency.
“There were a lot of Latino families that didn't know what to do in that storm and just reacted, and there was a greater loss of life than there had to be,” Aragon said. “This is not a matter of politics. It's a matter of life and death.”
“Mi amor, nos vamos a morir.”
It means, “My love, we're going to die.”
They were Maria Pol Martin's last words to her husband, Miguel Chicoj.
The couple met in Guatemala. They said goodbye in Oklahoma.
The EF5 tornado pulled Pol Martin, 26, and her 17-day-old son, Rey Chicoj Pol, out of their minivan on Interstate 40 in El Reno. Chicoj and two of the couple's other children in the minivan survived, even though the tornado picked up the vehicle and crushed it. Chicoj lives west of Hinton in a mobile home park and works at a hog farm.
Pol Martin and her baby were among the nine May 31 storm victims from Spanish-speaking families.
Chicoj said 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.
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.
The agency conducted a survey of Hispanic people and found most Hispanics believe immigrants should have to speak English to be a part of American society, though a significant minority disagreed.
When it comes to severe weather, language difficulties can be fatal, Aragon said.
“They speak enough English to get along in their jobs, but there is still a language barrier, enough so there's always a risk for miscommunication and lives that could be lost,” Aragon said.
Aguilar, Samuel Cifuentes' cousin, speaks English and said he understood that roads were dangerous.
His children panicked and begged him to leave the house. He told them, “No guys. We cannot move,” he said.
“I heard on the radio streets were more dangerous with all the accidents that time of day. So we stayed home, got in the bathroom and put something over their heads.”
Aguilar questions whether his cousin understood the warnings correctly.
“We have never heard a warning given in Spanish,” he said. “In the future, we need some notice and some news in Spanish because a lot of people don't understand in English ‘Stay in the house,' or ‘Don't move.' They don't understand.”
Getting the word out
Oklahoma City's Hispanic population is about 100,000, or about 17 percent of the total population, according to 2010 Census figures. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates undocumented residents living in Oklahoma City number at least 44,000.
Telemundo is a small station with a fast-growing audience, and the only Spanish TV news station in the area, news director Martinez said. Telemundo's live 5 and 10 p.m. programs began in 2006, making the tornado outbreaks May 19, 20 and 31 the first time the station had covered disasters of that scale. Overall, tornadoes and storms killed 49 people.
Educating its audience about severe weather basics — what the sirens mean, what the storm warnings and watches mean — is key.
“Some have only been here for a couple of months and they don't know what a tornado is capable of doing,” Martinez said. “We try to break it down.”
The staff had to suspend its weather updates to take cover about 6:45 p.m. May 31. While the staff was underground, the EF5 broke the U.S. record for width as it scraped a path of destruction near El Reno.
Staffers continued to broadcast storm warnings on KTUZ-FM, the company's sister radio station, Martinez said. The station does not have a bilingual meteorologist, but staff members did their best to translate messages from the weather service in Norman, Martinez said. Telemundo briefly lost power.
The basic message reporters relayed was to get underground if you could, but to stay home if not, he said.
Most of Oklahoma City's Hispanic population relies on Telemundo for televised weather updates, said Claudia Barajas, of the Latino Community Development Agency.
When the station went off air, bedlam followed.
“They were very nervous when Telemundo stopped broadcasting,” Barajas said.
Many Hispanics showed up at the agency's 420 SW 10 location to seek shelter as tornadoes, storms and then floods washed over the region.
Few anticipated the flooding threat following the tornado, including the Cifuentes family, said Aragon, who helped direct scared people into the agency's basement May 31.
“That poor family was without information, without a plan. And the information they did receive and were able to discern with the language barrier was ‘get someplace underground,'” said Aragon. “Had they not followed that advice, they would be alive today.
“Nobody intended to mislead, but they didn't think of the other hazard — the flooding.”
Reaching the Hispanic population with better warnings and storm education is an issue city officials are looking into, spokeswoman Kristy Yager said.
“We are eager to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community … with the help of the state and our nonprofits,” Yager said.
In the weeks following the storm, the city's attention has been focused on damage and debris cleanup. As soon as those efforts slow, the city plans to reach out to television stations for possible improvements in the warning systems, Yager said.
One suggestions is to make television crawls — the warnings scrolled on the bottom of the screen — both in Spanish and English.
Representatives from the community agency have met twice with the Red Cross, federal and state officials about the need to get warnings out to non-English speakers.
“There is a recognition by all the agencies that more bilingual people and people who can communicate this information in Spanish are required,” Aragon said. “How long that will take, I don't know. But the first part of solving a problem is recognition, and that problem is recognized.”
Providing education about basic storm safety before severe weather hits is key, said Mary Jane Coffman, of the Red Cross.
“If we are able to get with folks so that their families have a plan beforehand, it helps with those moments of decision during the storm,” Coffman said.
The state's emergency management department is focusing on making preparedness information more readily available for Spanish-speakers in the future.
“We're working on translating our publications into Spanish and also making those available on our website. And our goal is to have everything ready for the next spring storm season, at the very latest,” said Kelli Cain, of the state Department of Emergency Management.
Officials say education and improved warnings for immigrant communities will help Hispanic people make more informed decisions when future storms hit.
“We want to make sure that everyone on the day of the storm can turn on their radio and television and find more Spanish on the major airways,” Aragon said.
Telemundo is working to do its part. The station plans to improve its coverage with training sessions with the National Weather Service. Martinez said he hopes to have a Spanish-speaking meteorologist in place at the station by the 2014 severe weather season.
Dream that will not be
Aguilar has been showing up at work early these days. He is working more in an effort to suppress memories that bring him pain.
After his cousin's family went missing, Aguilar and other relatives organized a search party for the bodies.
Oklahoma City firefighters searched daily, too.
Downriver, volunteers looking for the seven storm victims with ties to Guatemala bought their own gloves and neon vests to work by the highway. They brought their own tools, shovels and rakes to search for the bodies by the swollen river. Turgid waters threatened to sweep them away. Poison ivy, snakes and heat made conditions uncomfortable. The men were caked with sweat and red earth. They refused to stop searching until every body was recovered. It took nine days.
The family-organized search party found most of the bodies — the bodies of the four children.
Samuel Cifuentes was Aguilar's cousin, but he was more like a brother, he said. Four-year-old Alex was “so lovable,” he said.
Aguilar's son was good friends's with Christopher, Yolanda Sarat-Santos' boy, who liked to play with little cars and to paint. Aguilar's son affectionately nicknamed his friend “Coconut Head.”
Friends and family pulled Christopher's body from the Deep Fork River. All but Yolanda were pulled from the Deep Fork. Her body had come to rest in a canal off a backyard at NW 36 and N May Avenue.
“‘Dad, I'm so sad. My friend, Coconut Head. My friend died,'” the little boy said when he learned the news.
Aguilar said his cousin “Sammy” dreamed of building a house in his hometown, La Esperanza, a little village with a name meaning “hope.”
Now his body lies in a grave there, alongside his wife and son.
“Sometimes your dreams don't come true,” Aguilar said. “Sometimes bad things happen, too.”