A tornado that hit Sedgwick and Butler counties on April 29 has sparked conversations about how local governments communicate in other languages. (Brett Schauf/The Beacon)

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When an EF-3 tornado touched down in Sedgwick County on April 29, some residents had little time to react — and some didn’t receive warnings they could understand. 

One of the first houses hit belonged to a primarily Spanish-speaking family, said Sedgwick County Commissioner Sarah Lopez. 

“They didn’t have time to prepare and be ready for it as well as others, and they lost everything,” Lopez said. 

The tornado is spurring conversations around how Sedgwick County and other local governments communicate weather emergency alerts in Spanish and other languages, especially as the Hispanic and Latino population grows.

“We have a diverse constituency. They don’t all speak English,” said County Commissioner Jim Howell. “We have to be able to provide public safety information in other languages. It’s a need.”

Sedgwick County hopes to expand area, Wichita weather emergency alerts

Wireless emergency alerts about tornadoes and flash flood warnings in Sedgwick County are sent through an automated system used by the county. 

In 2019, new updates to the system meant these messages could be sent in Spanish. But Sedgwick County is responsible for actually translating these messages into Spanish, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency

Following the April 29 tornado, Julie Stimson, director of Sedgwick County emergency management, said they hope to ensure these messages can be delivered in Spanish in Sedgwick County. 

“We’re working with the National Weather Service on that to see how that happens,” Stimson said in Wednesday’s commission meeting. “The capability is there, we just need to make sure that we all understand how we’re using it.”

Having emergency alerts in Spanish is important for community members who don’t speak English, said Rosa Cervantes, a stay-at-home mom and organizer of a Mexican dance group.

“Me, I understand a little bit,” Cervantes said. “But, I have friends who don’t speak English at all. So if they have (an) emergency or something like that where the tornado is here, they don’t know what happened, and they can be in danger because the information is not in Spanish.”

The county also typically shares information about inclement weather on their social media pages and via press releases. The county currently has no set policy about translating this information into Spanish or other languages, Lopez said. But they are starting to translate some educational materials and warning materials into Spanish, including resources for people affected by the tornado

Lopez also hopes to form a county-run team dedicated to Latino community emergency response and potentially other groups as well. The team would educate community volunteers on disaster preparedness.  

Outside of emergency communication, Howell said that the county tries to provide information about voting in other languages, too. And he said the county worked hard to put out information about the pandemic in multiple languages.

Cervantes said it would be helpful to have a Facebook page or website with all information in one place, from emergency events to community events to news.

“There’s a lot of information there, but it’s in different pages,” Cervantes said. “It’s better if they have one page that we just go on that page, and we know we’re going to find out everything in there.”

The EF-3 tornado that hit Sedgwick County pictured looking east on Central Avenue between Greenwich Road and Webb Road. (Brett Schauf/The Beacon)

City of Wichita has lofty goals, but ‘it’s not always possible’

Sedgwick County isn’t the only place discussing how they communicate with residents in languages other than English. 

It’s an ongoing conversation in the city of Wichita, said Megan Lovely, communications manager.

Currently, the communications team tries to provide Spanish translations of press releases when there is a public health or public safety concern, like last October’s boil water advisory. The city has staff members who can translate into about 16 different languages, Lovely said. They receive extra compensation for doing so. 

She said the city also focuses on translating information about economic opportunities, such as their PROPEL loans for small businesses. 

“We would love to just do everything,” Lovely said. “But with the amount of content and information we push out, it’s not always possible.”

The city also began contracting with an American Sign Language interpreter in the past several years, who can interpret at off-site city events, said Mayor Brandon Whipple. 

‘There’s just a huge gap’

Some local government agencies, including the Wichita Police Department and Wichita Public Schools USD 259, created staff positions to focus on providing information to constituents in other languages.

The WPD created a position for a Spanish language public information officer in 2015. 

“The reason that’s so important is because the current population, the estimates that I’ve looked at, were about 82-83,000 Hispanic and Latinos here in Wichita,” said Officer Paul Cruz, the Spanish language public information officer with Wichita police. 

Cruz runs a Facebook page dedicated to providing information in Spanish about the WPD and public safety. This year, the WPD is also launching a Facebook page in Vietnamese. Cruz said he’s heard from some Hispanic community members that the Facebook page is their primary source of news. 

“I think that just speaks to the reality that there’s just a huge gap,” Cruz said.

USD 259 also has a public information officer dedicated to providing information to Spanish-speaking families and Spanish media entities. The district has about 13,300 families with Spanish as their primary language spoken at home. 

Maria Kury, the Spanish communications specialist, created a Spanish-language Facebook page for USD 259. She also helps translate content that goes out districtwide. 

Susan Arensman, news and media relations manager at USD 259, said the position was created in October 2020. She said the pandemic made it clear how essential it was to be able to communicate with parents. 

The future of positions like Cruz’s and Kury’s will come down to how much resources each agency is willing to dedicate, Cruz said. 

“Honestly, it comes down to whether or not the city/county are willing to create bilingual/multicultural positions within each department,” Cruz wrote in a Facebook comment.

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaHack.