New York attorney general calls on NWS to improve language access

Earlier this month, New York’s attorney general called on the National Weather Service (NWS) to improve its language access measures, in response to the disproportionate number of non-English speaking individuals who died during Hurricane Ida last summer.

Currently, the NWS sends out weather warnings in English and Spanish — the agency does not publish translations of these warnings into any other language. 18 residents of New York were killed during Hurricane Ida — according to attorney general Letitia James’ office, the majority of them were speakers of languages other than English and Spanish, with limited proficiency in either language.

“The NWS 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,” James said. “It is our responsibility to keep our people safe, and to do so, we must expand language accessibility in our safety protocols.”

New York City, where 13 residents were killed during the storm, is often hailed as the most linguistically diverse location in the world. James noted that most of the New York residents who died during Hurricane Ida were immigrants from Asian countries with limited English proficiency. 

“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,” said U.S. representative Grace Meng (D-NY), who has spearheaded several language access measures at a federal level during her time in Congress.

While the majority of the city’s residents with limited English proficiency speak Spanish as their primary language, the city is also home to large communities of Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Korean, and Haitian Creole speakers who do not speak fluent English. 

Of course, the NWS can’t account for all of the roughly 800 languages spoken throughout the city. James has asked the NWS to work with translators to produce weather warnings in the above languages, in addition to the Spanish and English versions already produced.

The NWS has recently expressed interest in improving the efficiency of its language access efforts, putting out a request for information on using machine translation to aid in the development of Spanish translations, as MultiLingual reported in January. In its request for information, the NWS noted that it was also considering expanding the number of languages it produces weather warnings in, including Samoan and French.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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