During wildfires and hurricanes, a language gap can be deadly
Living along the path of a wildfire, hurricane, or tornado is a terrifying experience under the best of circumstances, but it can be a particularly dangerous situation for people who primarily speak languages other than English.
Maryam Kouhirostami knows that feeling well. In September 2019, the Iranian-born doctoral student was studying construction management at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Though she’d received an email warning from her school about Hurricane Dorian, which had just hit the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm, she had no idea what to expect. A friend had told her it would probably just be “a regular, rainy Florida day” where you could ride your bike down the street.
The storm weakened significantly by the time it hit Kouhirostami’s neighborhood, but it was still powerful enough to knock out her power for half a day. “It was scary, because I couldn’t see outside what was going on around the city, I could just see through the window,” she said. “It was heavy, heavy rain. I’ve never seen something like that in my country….
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During his eight years as community alert and warning manager in Sonoma County, California, Sam Wallis has repeatedly watched wildfires roar through the cities and small towns he protects. Often with little warning, fires have razed homes and charred the area’s picturesque hillsides, valleys and vineyards just north of San Francisco. Wallis had to evacuate his own home last year. And in 2017 his property was strewn with wind-blown debris from the deadly, 37,000-acre Tubbs Fire, one of the most destructive in California’s history. “The Tubbs Fire was the seminal event, an absolutely massive and fast-moving fire that we had no way of tracking,” Wallis says.
Once that blaze was squelched, several local agencies began installing a system of tower-mounted cameras, called ALERTWildfire, to look for smoke and flames so that fires could be attacked before raging out of control…