How bilingual meteorologists are reshaping risk communication
Severe weather information can mean the difference between life and death. Here’s how language and cultural barriers can pose risks to Hispanic and Latinx communities.
Joseph Trujillo Falcón grew up translating information from English to Spanish for his family and members of his community, and it didn't take long for him to notice the discrepancies in the weather information he was trying to pass along. Some words just didn't translate, or the words just didn't carry the same weight in Spanish that they did in English.
Born in Lima, Peru, Trujillo Falcón had spent his earliest years living in a place that frequently experienced earthquakes and other hazards but rarely tornadoes, severe thunderstorms or large hail. Then his family moved to Dallas, Texas, which is situated in the southern portion of Tornado Alley.
"Whenever we come to the United States, we might hear the word, say, 'tornado warning' or 'hurricane warning,' but we may not truly know the true implications of it just because of how we were raised and how we even came to learn about hazards in the first place," Trujillo Falcón told AccuWeather. "The short answer is this can be applied across the board [to weather events], and not just translation, but also understanding of hazards and context in general."
Despite ongoing efforts to deliver vital weather information to Spanish-speaking populations, there are still situations in which television stations from the same market deliver inconsistent risk information in Spanish, according to Trujillo Falcón, et al. The inconsistencies, in part, stem from a lack of standardization of Spanish terminology in the United States combined with insufficient resources to survey populations to better understand the words used in each dialect.
"The Latino population in this country is enormous, so we are talking about a very large fragment of the population that is possibly not really understanding the weather information that they are receiving," Violeta Yas, chief meteorologist at Telemundo62 and bilingual meteorologist at NBC10 in Philadelphia, told AccuWeather.
Of the 60.5 million Hispanic and Latinx people living in the U.S., 71.1% speak a language other than English at home and 28.4% of the individuals speak English less than "very well," according to the U.S. Census. With the number of Spanish speakers across the nation growing, trends showing that one in three people in the U.S. will speak Spanish by 2050, the need for accessible weather information goes beyond what Google Translate can provide.
The problem resurfaced for Trujillo Falcón during a broadcast internship. While practicing in front of a green screen, he found himself struggling to find an appropriate translation for "squall line." His mentor advised him to use the term in English, he said, but doing that still didn't sit right.
"If I ever just said 'squall line' to my mom, she would not be able to understand what that means," Trujillo Falcón said. "And that's one of the very first moments when it truly hit me that: 'Wow, we spent decades and decades of work in this area, but we still haven't come into a consensus of how to reach these communities in general.'"
Joseph Trujillo Falcón, graduate research assistant at Oklahoma University's Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory. (Joseph Trujillo Falcón)
One of the points that makes communication of weather events in the U.S. complicated is that people immigrating to the nation might not have had a comparable weather experience to fully realize the danger present. He compared the change in climate and weather as a culture shock, at least from his experience in going from Lima, Peru, with weather more comparable to California's, to Dallas, Texas.
Consider his first experience with hail in the state.
"I was just sitting here so shocked, like, what is this thing falling from the sky? Why does it look like baseballs? It scared me and honestly inspired me to study meteorology because I wanted to be less scared of it," said Trujillo Falcón, now graduate research assistant at Oklahoma University's Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory. "Well, ironically, I guess, it made me more scared of it, but all the reason to educate our community and make sure that they stay safe."
Technology has also had its own role to play in the matter.
"Working as a meteorologist on Spanish TV has some unique challenges," Yas said. "It can range from a sort of a lack of understanding from the public about certain weather terms to even the weather software not really fully being sort of functional from a linguistic standpoint."
An example she gave was querying a thunderstorm warning with weather software. In English, the details may show information about a severe thunderstorm or hail detected, but in Spanish, there may be extra steps to make sure that the information was translated correctly -- or even translated at all.
"I've come across situations where I'm trying to do that sort of in the moment and query a thunderstorm and it says 'tamaño del granizo,' which is 'size of hail' in Spanish and then it says 'golf ball' in English," Yas explained
Violeta Yas, chief meteorologist at Telemundo62 and bilingual meteorologist at NBC10. (Violeta Yas)
The information presented in English generally leaves it up to the broadcaster or station to translate, meaning that the dialect of the person delivering the news might not always reflect the dialect spoken by the viewers to whom the meteorologist is speaking.
Just like English, Spanish has a variety of dialects. Think of how in British English, a trolley might refer to a shopping cart, but in U.S. English, a trolley refers to a tram or a streetcar. An example of how this comes into play in meteorology is that in the Colombian dialect of Spanish, "tornado" doesn't refer to a twister but rather to a strong gust of wind. The mountainous nation doesn't typically see twisters.
Now, consider that there are at least as many Spanish dialects as there are Spanish-speaking countries, and that there is no recommendation in the U.S. on which weather terms to use across the board for weather information. Not to mention that even in English, while there is a system of watches and warnings, even those terms can confuse the general public. "Watch" can be interpreted as a more imminent "watch out" while "warning" might not sound as urgent, even though the meanings, in reality, are reversed.
A tornado moves past homes in Moore, Okla. on Monday, May 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
"The way we currently communicate the watch and warning system, of course, the definition sometimes can be confused by the English public," Trujillo Falcón said. "But in Spanish, we do have a variety of translations that are being used from 'vigilancia' to 'aviso' to 'alerta,' and sometimes we're not really doing a great job in differentiating these and creating [an] effective translation that unifies these communities. And so as of right now, there's inconsistency across the board and there can be danger in that."
Trujillo Falcón added that the current translation for "tornado warning" is "un aviso de tornado," which he says in a way doesn't convey the same level of urgency that it does in English.
"That could really translate a lot to how communities prepare for action and end up acting on it when the moment actually happens," he explained.
An hurdle spanning decades
One of the most infamous calls for change in the meteorology community began as a bad feeling for Samuel Cifuentes, 33, as severe weather rolled in toward Oklahoma City on May 31, 2013.
His cousin, Octavio Aguilar, told The Oklahoman that Cifuentes had been uneasy, warning others to stay safe that day.
Cifuentes had his own family to look after along with other relatives. When the storm hit, seven members of the Spanish-speaking family took shelter in a storm drain. Their house had no storm shelter, but the sirens were blaring, and the only Spanish-speaking station at the time had to go off the air when the broadcasters and staff sought shelter.
"That was the first time they had taken shelter under the bridge," Cifuentes' cousin, Octavio Aguilar, told The Oklahoman. "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."
Days earlier, on May 20, 2013, an EF5 tornado had swept through Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people and injuring another 207.
FILE - In this May 31, 2013, file photo a tornado forms near Banner Road and Praire Circle in El Reno, Okla. The National Weather Service says the deadly tornado that struck near Oklahoma City late last week was another top-of-the-scale EF5 that packed winds reaching 295 mph. The weather service also says the twister's 2.6-mile width is the widest ever recorded. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams, File)
Aguilar added that Cifuentes had never thought about the water. The family was swept away by floodwaters during the storm, seven of the 13 people who lost their lives due to flash flooding in Oklahoma County that day, according to the National Weather Service.
A National Weather Service report from after the severe weather event concluded that a lack of forecast and warning resources available in Spanish had contributed to the loss of life.
Trujillo Falcón added that stories like this, in which weather service assessments have time and time again mentioned that the lack of information in Spanish resulting in casualties, woke up many in the community.
Decades earlier, a deadly EF5 tornado tore through Lubbock, Texas, on May 11, 1970. The event claimed the lives of 26 people, injuring another 1,500 people, according to a disaster survey report from the U.S. Department of Commerce Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA), which was a precursor to NOAA. About half of the fatalities were from the Spanish-speaking population, the tornado having tracked directly through the Guadalupe section of the city, which had a heavy Hispanic population, according to the report.
The area had a Spanish-language radio station, KLFB. However, the station went off the air every night at 8 p.m., local time. The tornado struck sometime after 9:30 p.m. CDT.
An image of the aftermath of the 1970 Lubbock Tornado. (NOAA/ NWS Heritage Project)
"While it cannot be determined that continued Spanish-language broadcasts as the threat grew more acute would have saved lives, it is logical that they would have been helpful," the report said.
"It's a matter that we need to take into our hands right now, or else these sorts of events will continue to happen," Trujillo Falcón said.
One step after the other
As recently as April 2021, Trujillo Falcón and a handful of other meteorologists published an article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society to set a standard for how to go about translating in the future. The goal is not only to push for a unifying way to communicate vital weather news in Spanish but to investigate what may be the best practices going forward with risk terminology and making sure that people take action.
Atmospheric scientists, meteorologists, climate scientists -- many have come together to get to this point and move for better communication.
"I felt for a very long time we've just all been in our own individual offices, having these ideas but we've been able to join forces to truly advocate for this kind of change," Trujillo Falcón said.
The National Weather Service's National Lightning Safety Council (NLSC) was one of the latest entities to change how it presents life-saving information. After reviewing a list of lightning fatalities over the past 15 years, from 2006 to 2021, the NLSC found that it appeared that lightning victims were disproportionately people with Hispanic surnames. They included people listed as "unknown" rather than by their names in the count.
"We speculate that the 'unknown' are undocumented workers that are killed on a job," Chris Schultz, the NLSC's representative to the American Meteorology Society Latinx Committee (AMS LxC), told AccuWeather via email.
Within the four major workforce-related jobs (farming, construction, roofing and landscaping) tracked by the NLSC, victims with Spanish surnames plus those categorized as "unknown" accounted for 71% of the fatalities over the past 15 years. That's 38 of the 54 fatalities in those four jobs across 15 years.
While there was no official confirmation that each person identified as Latinx, it was enough to go to the Committee for Hispanic and Latinx Advancement (CHALA) and the AMS LxC to highlight the findings and take action, of which both Yas and Trujillo Falcón are members.
The AMS LxC Broadcast Sector ambassadors and the NLSC created a lightning safety task force that sought to more clearly communicate to Spanish-speaking communities the risks that lightning presented. The committee presented at an AMS conference to a World Meteorologist Organization audience, outlining ways to more clearly communicate the danger of lightning.
Through CHALA, Yas said that the broadcast sector has worked to tackle issues head-on, and despite the number of challenges, she feels like there's been progress.
"These things have been a struggle for many years, but I feel like it's different now, and we're in a place where we are, as a group, more actively working toward solutions as opposed to sort of fighting for that visibility," Yas said.
However, their work isn't done yet. In addition to language and cultural context, Trujillo Falcón said that people who are undocumented should be considered in weather coverage, weather evacuations and recovery from disasters that could greatly impact them.
"When you consider things like evacuation, you have to encourage people to leave their homes, but sometimes, within 100 miles of the border, for example, we need to go through immigration checkpoints," Trujillo Falcón said. "And so, for these given individuals, they might be tasked with, 'Should I evacuate or should I run the risk of having my family separated?'"
In addition to this, many of these individuals may not qualify for certain aid after a natural disaster. A person does not have to be a U.S. citizen to receive assistance from FEMA, buut they do have to be a U.S. citizen, a non-citizen national or Qualified Alien for a cash award from FEMA's Individuals and Household Program. The American Red Cross is another program that offers assistance extending to people who are undocumented.
"A lot of our work has really been focusing on these inequities and making sure that at the end of the day, when a disaster is coming, we have to make sure that everyone stays safe," Trujillo Falcón said, adding that taking these considerations into account was something that he hoped they could expand on in the future through not just effective translations, but establishing connections within the communities to build trust in the forecasts.
People in the U.S. generally hold confidence in meteorologists, the National Weather Service and storm chasers, but that might not be a part of their culture, he added.
"And that's where [we] have to take that into consideration a little bit," Trujillo Falcón said. "Which takes it just beyond the translation and making sure that we can connect and engage with these communities."
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