Translating ‘Preparedness’ into Vietnamese
[imgbelt img=mdcmarketclose320.jpg]In multi-lingual communities, civil authorities have to work harder and
smarter to prepare for emergencies and cope with their aftermath. It’s
happening in Alabama.
Sophin Khan, 11, shows where the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina crested in his house, in Bayou la Batre, Alabama, sparing his family’s most prized possession, a painting of their native Cambodia. His 13 year old sister took this photo, part of a documentary project at Alba Middle School.
When the extent of the disastrous Gulf oil spill became clear, BP realized it would need translators to work with the Asian shrimpers and crabbers in south Mobile County, Alabama. So the oil giant did what big, multinational corporations usually do—brought in Vietnamese translators from the outside.
The only problem was the translators spoke a dialect of Vietnamese different from people in the community, so different the two groups couldn’t understand each other.
That’s when BP officials called Mike Dillaber, an expert in emergency management and a project director with the Community Foundation of South Alabama. Dillaber and the community foundation had been part of a FEMA-funded project after Hurricane Katrina to connect emergency managers with Asian community leaders so they could get to know each other—and each other’s needs—before the next disaster struck.
FEMA realized that too often national, state and even local emergency managers didn’t know anyone in their immigrant communities. That inexperience cost time, money—and in some cases, lives. Because of the connections he made for the FEMA project in south Mobile County, Dillaber was immediately able to give BP the names of reputable translators in the community. The company could quickly begin interviewing and training local residents for work related to the spill.
“It’s about credibility,” Dillaber says. “There are lots of people now asking for information, and connections are being made a lot quicker than they used to be.”
Mobile County’s current situation is a reminder that the people best positioned to help solve local problems are the ones who live there. Residents of Cordova, Alaska, said in a recent NBC News report on the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill, effects that are still being felt: “Be prepared for a long, rough ride… Don’t count on BP or the government. Count on yourselves.”
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Fishing boats in the harbor at Bayou La Batre, “The Seafood Capital of Alabama.”
In Bayou La Batre, it is said there are four seasons: shrimp, oyster, crab and fish. According to the town’s Chamber of Commerce, the commercial seafood landing in Bayou La Batre has an economic impact on the state that approaches $80 million annually.
But the seafood industry often involves hard work for low pay. Consider that in Bayou La Batre, according to the 2000 Census:
• 51 percent of households had incomes below $25,000
• 46 percent of families had incomes below $25,000
• 23 percent of families were below the poverty level
Many residents settled here as refugees after fleeing the wars that ravaged Southeast Asia:
• Thirty percent of Bayou La Batre’s population is of Southeast Asian descent
• Approximately sixty percent of the city’s Asian residents are Vietnamese
• The vast majority of the remaining Southeast Asian families are Laotian and Cambodian
Many of those former immigrants—as well as Alabama natives—earn their living as crew members on commercial trawlers or as laborers in one of the many seafood processing plants. For them, the recent ban on Gulf fishing and the resulting loss of income are ominous. And judging from the past, communication barriers could make coping with this disaster even harder for its immigrant population.
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In 2009 the Cambodian American Association built a food distribution and community center in Bayou La Batre, a priority they set after working with the Emergency Preparedness Demonstration.