As Hurricane Dorian headed toward Florida, Natividad Jimenez sat in front of a microphone to tape a message in an Ancient Maya language that few in the world understand but that’s spoken by thousands of immigrants in the state.
In her native Mam, Jimenez was urging Guatemalan immigrants to get water, cash, and gas and to follow any evacuation orders in areas with mobile homes where many immigrants live in the city of Lake Worth, less than 5 miles from Donald Trump’s winter home Mar-a-Lago.
The messages recorded in three different indigenous languages will be sent as mass emergency text notifications, and broadcast on speakers in fire trucks around low-income communities.
“Many Guatemalans live in mobile homes. As much as you tell them to please seek shelter, they sometimes don’t get it. But maybe the fire truck will help,” Jimenez said.
Floridians have frantically stocked up on gas to power generators and water to drink and cook with, as Dorian strengthened into a major hurricane. Forecasts early Saturday suggested the storm would hug Florida’s east coast and spare it the worst effects of a direct hit, while still menacing it with dangerous storm surge.
However, communities near the coast, including Lake Worth, were still in the cone of potential storm pathways forecast by the National Hurricane Center in Miami as of Saturday morning, and a direct hit on the state was still possible.
Charity groups were worried about vulnerable populations along the eastern coast who tend to have fewer resources to prepare ahead of major storms. They include Central American immigrants in Lake Worth and Jupiter, elderly people in retirement communities all the way up the coast, and homeless people in parks.
Lawmakers are going to Spanish-language radio stations asking people to go through the hurricane plan with older relatives who live by themselves. Teachers are telling immigrant children to explain to their parents what they need to have in their hurricane kit. Tutors who normally pay visits to teach young children have switched gears to hurricane-proof homes and explain the location of shelters and hospitals.
Nongovernmental organizations have also launched a website to text alerts in Spanish and Haitian Creole and set up three locations to receive supplies to hand out to those in need after the hurricane passes.
The nonprofit organization Guatemalan-Maya Center estimates that as many as 10,000 Guatemalans of the 20,000 who concentrate in Palm Beach County are speaking an indigenous language and have troubles understanding Spanish, a language Florida officials have mastered when disaster strikes.
The Rev. Frank O’Loughlin, co-founder of the Guatemalan-Maya Center, says news updates by CBS or NBC local networks or even Univision and Telemundo affiliates may be falling on deaf ears.
“We keep telling the emergency services ‘You are talking out into the air but you are not talking to the actual workforce.’ And how do we compensate for that?” said O’Loughlin.
Gloria Ramirez arrived from Huehuetenango, Guatemala two months ago after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas with her father. The pregnant 16-year-old girl lives in a crowded apartment with her father and other immigrant families, and she is not sure they have shutters or plywood to protect the windows.
Ramirez, who has trouble understanding Spanish as her main language is mam, also said it has been hard to find supplies. She is hoping that a church nearby may be able to help with other hurricane supplies.
“I am praying to God that we can find water,” said Ramirez rubbing her belly. Money has been scarce since she lost some jobs cleaning homes after she started showing. “Sometimes they can offer help at my church. I have been going every day.”
A volunteer of the center was taping pieces of cardboard to the glass doors as women waited in line for help at the center.
Amalia Godinez arrived carrying her 10-month-old in her back with a handwoven baby wrap. Godinez said she was worried she would lose power and not be able to cook for her three children. Her two older boys have been saying that their teachers tell them they need to have canned food and water for more than three days.
“I have not been able to buy more food,” said the stay-at-home mother. “I hope God stays with us after the hurricane leaves.”