The first hours and days of the Weaver fertilizer plant fire were terrifying for many people that lived in the vicinity. And many of those residents were Spanish speakers who had little to no access to critical information.
Just weeks after the fire, over 100 residents gathered at a community meeting held by Winston-Salem officials. One by one, they came up to the microphone, demanding answers and accountability, and describing the chaos of those moments. Juan Gomez pleaded for any information available in Spanish.
"We were scared, we were smelling all that smoke. Some of them don’t speak English, don’t understand what’s going on, so we need more information in the future for anything like that for the Hispanic community."
It was the middle of the night when Vivian Perez Chandler saw the news. She noticed all of the information from the city was in English and took action.
"So I ended up texting an elected official at 12:03 a.m. on Tuesday, February 1st, and I said, 'I apologize for the late text. Due to the fertilizer plant fire, does the city have the ability to also make a video in Spanish?'"
Perez Chandler helped the city in the days to come. She translated press conferences and contacted local Spanish media to raise awareness. But that was temporary. The city had to act, and fast.
So, it created a new position to be a liaison between authorities and the Spanish-speaking residents. Javier Correa-Vega joined seven months later, a local man who provided food and support to people who were displaced due to the fire.
He says the focus is earning the community’s trust, making it easier for people to access Spanish speakers in the city’s department, and increasing visibility.
"So I came with the idea and I created, for the first time at the City of Winston-Salem, we're going to now identify Hispanic workers, Latino workers that speak two languages, and we're going to attach 'Hablo Espanol' to their ID."
The Language Access program and city management are working together to draft a plan in case of future emergencies, but there isn’t one in place yet. The latest plan is from 2010 and while it acknowledges the need for broader language access, it doesn’t spell out any specific steps to do so.
Adolfo Briceño, the human relations program manager responsible for the new language access team, says it’s a work in progress.
"Should an event of this magnitude happen again, and I hope it never does, but if it does happen, we are going to be a little bit better prepared, I hope, than when it happened initially and there was nothing there," he says. "And everything had to be, you know, worked on the minute it happened."
The lack of emergency access for non-English speakers is not unique to Winston-Salem, Tianyi Xiang researches social vulnerability and disaster management at Arizona State University and looked at several states’ county emergency plans.
She says it’s difficult to quantify their performance, but when she looks at their plans on paper, many counties lack concrete action.
"Nearly half of the counties mentioned they’re taking action in addressing the language access needs," she says. "And almost two, almost two-thirds of the counties in my sample acknowledge there is a language access needs."
Xiang says nonprofits and other entities have to fill the void. That was the case during the Weaver Fertilizer plant fire.
Vivian Perez Chandler, who helped in those early moments, found that the need was so high she opened her own business to help organizations be more language-inclusive. But she says the problem itself is systemic.
"I think it's been a lack of representation on boards and staff, but also, just realizing that there's a lot of working families here," she explains. "I mean, had I not been given the opportunity from my job to serve on boards, that representation wouldn't be there."
Winston-Salem and Forsyth County officials say the updated emergency plan was delayed by COVID-19, but should be completed within six months and available to the public for viewing at that time.
This story was produced by a partnership between WFDD and La Noticia. You can read this story in Spanish at La Noticia.
Eileen Rodriguez is a reporter for both WFDD and La Noticia through Report for America, where she covers COVID-19's impact in the Latino Communities.
Periodista de La Noticia y 88.5 WFDD, Eileen Rodríguez reporta el impacto de COVID-19 en la comunidad Latina en Carolina del Norte. Rodríguez es miembro del cuerpo de periodistas de Report for America 2021-2022