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Oklahoma storms: Many Spanish-speaking families struggle to understand storm precautions, officials say

BY JULIANA KEEPING and HANNAH COVINGTON Modified: July 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm •  Published: July 14, 2013

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.”

Changes proposed

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.”