Translating Disaster

In New Orleans, "there is a white power structure and a black power structure but not really any in between," explains Latino community activist Jessica Venegas. Latinos hold little political power compared to their population size, which has tripled in the years since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Seeking to be that "in between" in the city's power structure, in 2007 the Latino community founded Puentes, the city's first Latino-run and Latino-serving organization. Along with many other community-based organizations across the Gulf Coast, Puentes is working to build social capital and to unify Latino voices so that for future crises, the community can avoid the kind of devastation it suffered in the wake of Katrina.

Katrina and its aftermath were a call to action not only for community groups like Puentes but also the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and grant-making organizations, like the Gates and Ford foundations, which are forging new connections with community groups in order to improve disaster relief for Latinos. Advocacy groups such as the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) are lobbying for public-private partnerships that would further strengthen those relationships, binding regional experts with government resources to prevent the kinds of problems Latinos faced after Katrina from happening during the next natural disaster.

Hurricane Katrina hit Latinos harder than it hit most other ethnic communities. Many Spanish-speaking Latinos did not even evacuate -- almost all storm warnings were broadcast in English. Many immigrant Latinos lost papers, a relative, or a job to which their immigration status was tied, jeopardizing their ability to receive emergency aid. Even though undocumented immigrants have the right to relief like food, health care, and refuge in the wake of a disaster, immigration officers raided at least two Red Cross shelters. Relief workers neglected an entire apartment complex in a New Orleans suburb, assuming its residents were undocumented and ineligible for housing assistance, neither of which turned out to be the case. Linguistic isolation and the legal complexities of non-citizens make all Latinos vulnerable to being excluded from federal aid. Lucas Diaz, Puentes' founder and executive director, says Katrina revealed the pervasiveness of linguistic barriers, legal issues, and discrimination. "Latinos were invisible prior to the storm," he says. But after the storm, he explains, "Immigrant concerns became an issue."

Despite the work that groups like Puentes are doing to elevate Latino issues, "increased public awareness of the Latino and immigrant experience during disasters has yet to translate fully into meaningful policy change," according to an NCLR report released last fall about reaching Latinos during times of crisis. This is partly because, due to limited resources, regional Latino community organizations focus on direct assistance to those in need rather than lobbying or developing Latino leaders. Without regional political representation, Latinos have had few voices for change. While groups like Puentes are working to build this Latino voice from the bottom up, the NCLR report evinces a top-down approach, targeting emergency-management personnel, grant-makers, and government officials with clear and actionable recommendations to improve conditions for Latino communities in the aftermath of a natural disaster. At the top of the list is for President Barack Obama to issue an executive order that would suspend immigration enforcement until relief efforts are concluded. Many immigrant victims of Katrina landed in deportation proceedings when they sought relief.

NCLR also wants to see relief for all -- regardless of citizenship status -- during a disaster. This will take more than an executive order. Accordingly, NCLR recommends funding and networking community organizations so they can better serve Latinos; not only were community groups there for Latinos and immigrants during Katrina when the government was not but in the years since the storm, these groups have broken down the region's bipartite power structure by joining forces across racial lines to build political leverage key to policy change.

This would continue a trend in the region's uplift: public funding to support private community organizations -- many of which are themselves "black-brown coalitions," partnerships between Latinos (brown) and African Americans (black). "One thing about Katrina is that it really elevated the need for African Americans and Latinos to break bread with one another, to think about their frame differently," says Catherine Montoya, who contributed to the NCLR report and works as a field manager for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "It's not just about immigrants and being undocumented; it's about low-wage workers."

Grant-making foundations have taken notice of NCLR's emphasis on the crucial role of community groups. "One of the most significant changes we've seen over the past three years is the emergence of highly networked community-based organizations that have become much more engaged in disaster preparedness and response," says Jerry Maldonado, director of the Ford Foundation's Gulf Coast initiative, which funds more than 100 community groups in the region. As black-brown coalitions have cropped up along the Gulf Coast, sponsoring foundations like Ford have funded these service- and advocacy- group networks. Community-based organizations often "do their own thing," says Bill Chandler, head of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA), but foundation networking "has created an arena where people can talk, plan, work, and raise hell together when necessary."

But, cautions NCLR report co-author Sara Benitez, this foundation funding is "not to replace what the federal government is doing or the American Red Cross." Adds Maldonado, "Despite this positive networking trend, private philanthropy and local community-based organizations can never substitute for the effective mobilization of local, state, and federal resources."

Still, the government has a long way to go. Lessons Learned, the initial post-Katrina self-evaluation put out by the Department of Homeland Security in 2006, only mentions vulnerable populations twice, low-income populations twice, and language barriers once, as NCLR notes. It only discusses immigration in its descriptions of how Immigration and Customs Enforcement assisted in general law enforcement.

Promisingly, the 2006 Emergency Management Reform Act took FEMA to task, mandating the agency work with state and local governments to identify limited-English-proficient groups, to account for them in planning, and to disseminate emergency information they can understand. FEMA must also put together a clearinghouse of language-assistance programs for state and local governments to look at in shaping their own disaster-assistance plans.

Today, more than three years after the hurricane, public-private coalitions are even more crucial and more capable than the government alone or community groups alone. Many Latinos and immigrants are still facing post-Katrina challenges, such as being forced to vacate FEMA trailers, or "high-tech shotgun houses," as Chandler puts it. Community groups like MIRA will provide the cultural, linguistic, and logistical expertise needed to best serve Latinos in this situation, while the government -- in this case, Mississippi's Emergency Management Agency -- will provide the staff and funds to meet Chandler's demand for aid.

Until Latino-specific groups like Puentes are able to make their political impact fully felt, public-private partnerships and black-brown coalitions are the best chance for securing human rights and public safety after a disaster. The members of these nascent alliances are working to ensure that the next time a natural disaster strikes the region, Latinos won't be left behind.