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New Report Shows Immigrant and Limited English Proficient Communities Lack Disaster Preparedness

Monday, July 28, 2008

  • The Asian American Justice Center

Washington, D.C. - The Asian American Justice Center (AAJC) applauds the recent release of Disaster Preparedness in Urban Communities: Lessons Learned from the Recent Catastrophes Relevant to Asian and Latino Communities in Southern California, a joint collaboration by AAJC's affiliate, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), and the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI).

"While focused on California, the report provides important insights to policymakers and agencies charged with preparing and implementing emergency response plans throughout the nation," said Karen K. Narasaki, president and executive director of AAJC.

The APALC/TRPI study provides findings and recommendations to improve disaster preparedness in Asian American and Latino communities and to help emergency response personnel better serve these growing communities. An important finding is that immigrant and limited English proficient populations are not fully incorporated in disaster preparedness educational efforts and emergency response plans. AAJC's case study, Hurricane Katrina: Models for Effective Emergency Response in Asian American Communities, which can be found at was also used in the production of the report.

Key findings in the report include:
• A lack of disaster preparedness materials in languages other than English that reflect the demographics of the service populations.
• A shortage of bilingual staff and volunteers among emergency response crews and nonprofits that typically do outreach during emergencies.
• That ethnic media outlets are underutilized as important tools for communication with immigrant and limited English speaking communities.
• Concern that members of the immigrant community will not come forward for assistance for fear that their status will come into question.

The report recommends that federal and state governments establish a baseline of minimal secondary language resources and that local agencies take a lead in creating informational materials and response plans that take into account the language needs of their constituents. Current state legislative efforts to address this issue include AB 1930 (Torrico) which would build upon the existing emergency preparedness system and incorporate the language needs of Californians in disaster preparedness planning, response and recovery.

Governments must also address a key concern among some immigrants that seeking emergency help could result in deportation or lead to problems with receiving benefits. "When you have a major disaster and people flee their homes, immigration documents may well be lost," said Harry Pachon, president of TRPI. "Our field researchers heard reports that people were turned away for assistance in New Orleans because they couldn't prove their legal residency status. Others avoided reaching out for help because of their fear of being deported."

"This study shows that we are ill-prepared to serve the limited English proficient community in the event of a major catastrophic disaster," said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of APALC. "By not taking into account the special needs and concerns of these communities in our disaster preparedness and response plans, we are putting many lives at risk."

The project, conducted over a two-year period, involved two focus groups of Latino residents, one of Mandarin speaking residents and another comprised of Vietnamese speaking residents. Researchers also interviewed 34 members of disaster service providers, nonprofit organizations and ethnic organizations in Southern California. Additional interviews focused on emergency service providers in the quake-affected areas of Northridge, Calif. (1994) and the Hurricane Katrina disaster areas in Louisiana (2005). The study addresses the need to prepare for similar large-scale emergencies and man-made disasters. The U.S. Geological Survey forecasts that California has a 46 percent chance of an earthquake with at least a 7.5 magnitude in the next 30 years.

For a copy of Disaster Preparedness in Urban Communities: Lessons Learned from the Recent Catastrophes Relevant to Asian and Latino Communities in Southern California, please click here:

About The Asian American Justice Center: Formerly known as NAPALC, The Asian American Justice Center is a national organization dedicated to defending and advancing the civil and human rights of Asian Americans. It works closely with three affiliates - the Asian American Institute of Chicago, the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles - and nearly 100 community partners in 49 cities, 23 states and Washington, D.C.