As extreme weather events become more common, lifesaving emergency alerts need to be available “in all the languages commonly spoken in the communities that receive the alerts,” New York Attorney General Letitia James wrote in a letter to the National Weather Service and the US Department of Commerce.
BuzzFeed News reported in December that during Hurricane Ida last year, emergency alerts sent out through wireless carriers to people’s cellphones were available only in English and Spanish. Eleven people drowned in basements in New York City during the storm, most of whom were of Asian descent, according to NBC News; many of them were immigrants.
“Language should never be a barrier to critical information that could save lives,” James said in a statement released this week. “The National Weather Service must work with other agencies to ensure that all immigrant communities can be effectively warned of future weather-related crises and given the equal chance to survive. It is our responsibility to keep our people safe, and to do so, we must expand language accessibility in our safety protocols.”
While New York City's local alert system can send messages in 14 languages, residents must sign up for the service. In contrast, the National Weather Service — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is an agency in the Commerce Department — is able to reach all cellphone users in an at-risk area.
James asks in the letter for the alerts to also be available in Chinese (both traditional and simplified text), Russian, French Creole, Bengali, and Korean, which are among the most common of roughly 700 languages spoken in New York City.
“Hurricane Ida had a devastating impact on our community last year because many could not understand the warnings that were issued,” Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, said in a statement. “We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.”