Attorney General James Calls on National Weather Service To Increase Language Accessibility For Severe Weather Warnings

March 1, 2022

New York Attorney General Letitia James sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Acting Director of the National Weather Service Mary C. Erickson, calling for expanded language accessibility for severe weather alerts. Currently, warnings from the National Weather Service (NWS), which are issued in advance of a severe weather event, are not accessible in any language except for English and Spanish.

In advance of Hurricane Ida, which devastated New York in September 2021, NWS alerts were sent out to New Yorkers in only English and Spanish to warn them of the impending storm.

The storm caused 18 deaths in New York, and the majority of those individuals were of Asian descent and did not speak or had limited proficiency in English or Spanish.

“Language should never be a barrier to critical information that could save lives,” said Attorney General James. “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.”

In September 2021, Hurricane Ida ravaged the Northeast and tore across New York City. At least 91 people died across nine states, including at least 18 drowning deaths in New York from flash flooding. The NWS sent out a series of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) to all WEA-enabled phones in New York City, warning of a “catastrophic” flash flood emergency. These alerts were issued only in English and Spanish, which are not the primary languages for many of New York’s immigrant communities.

There are approximately 700 different languages and dialects spoken in New York City.  Nearly all the victims who lost their lives to the destruction from Hurricane Ida in New York City were immigrants from Trinidad, Nepal, and China, with primary languages that were neither English nor Spanish.

Given the number of immigrants who speak languages other than English and Spanish, Attorney General James urges the NWS to send alerts in at least the languages most commonly spoken by New York City residents with limited English proficiency: Chinese (both traditional and simplified), Russian, French Creole, Bengali, and Korean, in addition to Spanish.

The Commerce Department has issued guidance on executive orders aimed at ensuring that federally assisted programs are accessible to all people, including those with limited English proficiency.

In 2014, following the tragic loss of life from extreme weather events in Spanish-speaking communities due to a lack of Spanish safety alerts, the NWS recommended that it should establish a more effective procedure for non-English speaking alert services to warn of severe weather events.

Attorney General James is calling on the NWS and the Department of Commerce to swiftly develop the capacity to provide hazardous weather warnings to all Americans, regardless of the language they speak.

New York City emergency management agency maintains an opt-in alerting system, known as NotifyNYC, and these alerts are available in numerous languages.

However, city residents must proactively register their cell phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses in order to receive such alerts.

There is no indication that most residents in immigrant communities are signed up to receive any such alerts.

“Hurricane Ida devastated the East Coast, the state of New York, and the Queens community. The borough of Queens suffered immense property damage as people lost their homes, cars, and material possessions,” said U.S. Representative Grace Meng. “Worst of all, our New York community lost 18 lives to flash flooding caused by the hurricane. Unfortunately, the severe weather alerts were not accessible in languages other than English and Spanish, leaving many in my district and in our city unaware of the urgency of the flash flooding. We have seen these changes in other areas in New York City in the past, but it is sad that a loss of life is what it takes in order for key weather service updates to be available to non-English speaking New York City communities. I applaud Attorney General James for her commitment to ensuring our state’s services are accessible to those with limited English proficiency, and I support her request to the National Weather Service to increase language accessibility for severe weather warnings.”

“Weather emergencies can be a matter of life and death in any language, but without an inclusive language accessibility system, the National Weather Service risks putting immigrant communities in even greater danger,” said State Senator John Liu. “Getting important life-saving information to every community in a timely manner must be a priority during severe weather events, and Attorney General James is right to call attention to this matter.”

“New York is one of the most diverse places in the world, and it’s important that all New Yorkers have access to emergency broadcasts and warnings, especially during extreme weather events,” said State Assemblymember Ron Kim. “I thank Attorney General Letitia James for her stance on increasing language accessibility in immigrant communities.”

“Attorney General James’ letter speaks to an issue I’ve stressed for a long time. The translation is not just a question of convenience; the provision of translated, culturally sensitive, and accessible information is vital to the safety of AAPI and immigrant communities,” said State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. “I have long fought for the expansion of translation services on the state level and wholeheartedly support Attorney General James’ call for the federal government to follow our lead. The next storm could come any day now, and we cannot allow more lives to be lost because of a failure to communicate in a language people can understand. Translation helps to ensure that the AAPI community is included, respected, protected, and properly served by the government. It is a key step towards equity.”

“Language access is a matter of survival for non-English speaking communities during emergencies. Imagine your phone blaring an alert, warning you of impending danger, and seeing only an incomprehensible string of letters,” said New York City Council Member Julie Won. “That was the reality of so many people in Woodside, Sunnyside, Astoria, and Long Island City during Hurricane Ida last summer. Attorney General James is right to call for a more inclusive emergency alert system. Lives in my community have already been lost and the NWS has the opportunity to fix this before the death toll rises with the next massive storm.”

“Last year, my district was devastated when Hurricane Ida hit and took the lives of three individuals who lived in basement apartments,” said New York City Councilmember Sandra Ung. “In districts like mine where the majority of residents have limited English proficiency, sending severe weather alerts in multiple languages is vital if we are to save lives. I stand with Attorney General James and urge NWS to ensure that these alerts are translated into the languages most commonly spoken by New Yorkers.”

“Queens is the most diverse borough in the world, and it’s unthinkable that in a city with roughly 1.2 million members of the AAPI community, we don’t have measures in place to ensure each and every New Yorker received timely warnings about weather emergencies,” said New York City Council Member Linda Lee. “We cannot afford a repeat of Hurricane Ida which disproportionately claimed the lives of our neighbors who did not speak English as their primary language. New York prides itself on being a city of immigrants of diverse backgrounds and cultures, and we must do everything in our power to advocate for the wellbeing of all of our communities.”

“Asian Americans are the fastest-growing population in New York, and yet language accessibility for our community still remains an issue that we have yet to see any significant progress on,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director, Asian American Federation. “Hurricane Ida had a devastating impact on our community last year because many could not understand the warnings that were issued. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again. We thank Attorney General James for her call to increase language translation access from the National Weather Service in regard to severe weather warnings. This is simply a matter of saving lives.”

“Hurricane Ida provided devastating evidence of the dire consequences when vulnerable communities fail to receive weather alerts and have no time to prepare for life-threatening storms,” said Jennifer Sun and Thomas Yu, co-executive directors, Asian Americans For Equality (AAFE). “We thank Attorney General James for advocating for greater language accessibility in severe weather situations and urge the federal government to act swiftly to expand language accessibility. The lives of so many families in our immigrant communities depend on it.”

“We support the New York Attorney General’s letter to the National Weather Service calling for emergency weather alerts to be translated into Asian languages,” said Margaret Fung, executive director, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). “Language assistance is critical in order to reach New York’s diverse immigrant communities. In 1992, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund advocated for the expansion of language assistance to limited English proficient Asian American voters in New York City. After three decades of coverage under section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, Asian American voter registration and turnout in New York City has increased steadily, due in large part to Chinese, Korean, and Bengali-language ballots and assistance. The National Weather Service can save lives by expanding language assistance in its emergency alert system, and we urge NWS to take immediate action to reach out all New Yorkers, regardless of their English language proficiency.”

“As Hurricane Ida heartbreakingly illustrated, New York City’s Asian American Pacific Islander and immigrant communities (AAPI) are uniquely vulnerable during extreme weather events,” said Anita Gundanna and Vanessa Leung, co-executive directors, Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF). “The reasons for this are complex and include unfamiliarity with blizzards and hurricanes and the lack of clear, timely guidance in their native languages. We fully support Attorney General James’ call for weather warnings in the languages spoken by our community and see this move as a critical first step in ensuring our immigrant communities are no longer left behind during natural disasters. As New York’s burgeoning AAPI community continues to grow, our state government must recognize that language access and improved communication systems are key to creating a safer New York for us all.”

“Our government has a responsibility to protect and provide for all of its residents, no matter their primary language,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director, New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC). “By failing to provide urgent weather alerts in languages beyond English and Spanish, our state leaves millions of New Yorkers vulnerable to preventable injuries or death, as recently evidenced by the profound destruction of Hurricane Ida. To leave some New Yorkers uninformed, excluding them from critical life-saving alerts, is to fail them at the most basic and fundamental level. We applaud Attorney General Letitia James’ call for broader language accessibility for severe weather alerts, which will save millions of lives threatened by increasingly devastating natural disasters. Moreover, her call to action underscores the need for the expansion of language access to all critical state services for immigrant New Yorkers. By removing these significant language barriers from essential resources, we come closer to ensuring an equitable New York state.”

“KAFSC urges the National Weather Service to take immediate action to address the languages most commonly spoken by New York City residents with limited English proficiency: Chinese (both traditional and simplified), Russian, French Creole, Bengali, and Korean, in addition to Spanish,” said Jeehae Fischer, executive director, Korean American Family Service Center (KAFSC). “It would be in the best interest of communities if language-appropriate severe alert warnings were provided in multiple languages so that collectively as a city, we can be informed and ensure those vulnerable population groups have the ability to receive alert warnings during severe weather events. Together, we need to do more to ensure every person receives severe alert warnings in the language they speak.”

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Mihir Desai and Max Shterngel, and Environmental Scientists D Pei Wu and Joseph E. Haas, II, under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Monica Wagner. The Environmental Protection Bureau is led by Lemuel M. Srolovic. The Environmental Protection Bureau is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.

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