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.”

The heart of south Mobile County is Bayou La Batre (pop. 2725), on the shores of the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s where the mythical Forrest Gump went in the 1994 movie to fulfill his dream of becoming a shrimper, and for good reason—the state tourism office describes Bayou La Batre as “The Seafood Capital of Alabama.” The town has around 70 seafood-related businesses that process tons of oysters, crab and shrimp from all over the northern Gulf annually.

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.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge severely damaged Bayou La Batre. According to FEMA assessments, approximately 65% of all occupied housing in the city was damaged or destroyed, leaving nearly 1,000 people homeless. Images of the aftermath of Katrina in Bayou La Batre show shrimp boats stacked into piles, pushed ashore by a 20-foot storm surge that also destroyed a rural health clinic founded by Dr. Regina Benjamin, the current Surgeon General of the United States. At the time, Dr. Benjamin was known for her skill at translating research on preventive health measures into accessible interventions for her diverse community. After Katrina she was able to rebuild the clinic and continue serving her patients. Unfortunately, emergency responders in Bayou La Batre were not as adept at contacting and serving Asian residents. As a result, many of their needs were unmet.

Typically in the days leading up to disasters and the weeks that follow, neighbors come together, aiding and comforting one another. At the same time, local, state and federal government officials spring into action to provide the bulk of human and material resources to supplement what’s available or replace what’s been destroyed. These are two systems— one informal, the other formal— at work, and often in conflict. Both are crucial to a community’s survival and recovery, but when they are not in sync, there will be frustration on both sides. When there are further barriers of culture, language and religion, the level of frustration is amplified. That was the case for many Asian immigrants in Bayou La Batre after Katrina. But today, things are different.

In 2008, recognizing the problems they faced helping Asian residents prepare for, survive, and recover from disasters, community leaders in Mobile County set out to forge new relationships with those populations and build trust, so that in the next disaster they would be able to respond more effectively. The effort in Alabama was part of the Emergency Preparedness Demonstration, a FEMA-funded project in eight states and the District of Columbia to explore how to build the capacity of disadvantaged people and communities to work in partnership with the formal disaster awareness and recovery system. The effort was managed by our organization — MDC, a Chapel Hill, N.C., nonprofit — in partnership with The Center for Urban & Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and The Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University.

The work set out steps that made it possible for communities and authorities to build trust and serve local residents together: identifying leaders within each community who could link the formal and informal systems of aid and communication; identifying those most at risk; translating emergency messages into residents’ languages; and identifying preparations before a disaster that would be most helpful afterward. In south Mobile County, these steps included completing and stocking a storehouse for Southeast Asian food staples. And there are now stronger ties between emergency managers and the immigrant communities. With the smell of oil in the air, those ties are starting to pay off.

Mike Dillaber has been to a lot of meetings involving BP, government agencies, nonprofits, and disaster relief organizations. And when they start talking about getting local help, he sees them pulling out a familiar list of leaders in the Southeast Asian community. It’s one he created as part of the Emergency Preparedness Demonstration. “I have seen the list pop up in places that I didn’t put it,” Dillaber says. It’s making the rounds.

And when BP needed translators, the company called Dillaber for the names and numbers of partners in the community who had been found to be responsible and reliable. “It gets them credibility within their own community,” Dillaber says, “and makes them part of the emergency management system, so they’re accessing the correct system instead of being a victim that system.”

When local governments found out that BP was creating grants to put local people to work, Dillaber says, “the mayor [of Bayou La Batre] brought people into his office and said ‘This is what we’re doing, we want this in everyone’s languages, and we want everyone to have equal access to those jobs. That probably never would have happened prior to the project.”

As everyone faces the personal hardships, economic fallout, logistical problems, and business crises ahead, at least people are speaking the same language now. Better able to communicate with emergency managers, local administrators and company officials, the Southeast Asian residents of Mobile County are in a better position to take care of themselves.

John Cooper is director of the Emergency Preparedness Demonstration at MDC, based in Chapel Hill, N.C, and Richard Hart is its communications director. For more information about the Emergency Preparedness Demonstration and Bayou La Batre, here’s MDC short video.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.