Before Dorian, Florida groups help immigrants get prepared

Nation & World News

Amalia Godinez sits her 10-month-old daughter Priscila on her lap as she waits for help at the Guatemalan-Maya Center on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 in Lake Worth, Fla. Godinez said she was worried she would lose power and not be able to cook for her three children. Charity groups are worried about vulnerable populations along the eastern coast, who were still in the cone of potential storm pathway forecast by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. (AP PhotoAdriana Gomez)

LAKE WORTH, Fla. (AP) — With Hurricane Dorian menacing 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 urged Guatemalan immigrants to get water, cash, and gas and heed any evacuation orders in areas with mobile homes where many immigrants live in the city of Lake Worth, less than 5 miles (8 kilometers) from President Donald Trump’s winter home Mar-a-Lago.

That and other messages recorded in three indigenous languages will be sent as mass emergency text notifications, and broadcast via 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.

With the major hurricane threatening, Floridians have frantically stocked up on gas to power generators and water to drink and cook with. Forecasts have suggested the storm would hug Florida’s east coast and spare it a direct hit, while still menacing it with a dangerous storm surge.

However, communities near the coast were still in the cone of potential storm pathways forecast by the National Hurricane Center in Miami as of Saturday.

Charity groups were worried about vulnerable populations along the eastern coast who tend to have fewer resources than most 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 hurricane planning with older relatives living by themselves. Teachers are telling immigrant children to explain to their parents what’s needed 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 also have launched a website to text alerts in Spanish and Haitian Creole, establishing three locations to distribute emergency supplies once Dorian 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, said news updates by local TV networks or even Spanish-language 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. She isn’t 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.

“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.”

Amalia Godinez arrived at the center carrying her 10-month-old daughter on her back with a hand-woven baby wrap. Godinez said she worried she would lose power and not be able to cook for her three children. Her two older boys say that their teacher tells them they need to have canned food and water for several 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.”

As a tropical storm watch went into effect, immigrant rights advocates sent a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis asking him to suspend cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration authorities, citing a new state law that bans so-called sanctuary cities. A DeSantis’ spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter that people heading to a local shelter should not be afraid because deputies were not checking anyone’s immigration status.

Still, Jimenez, at the Guatemalan-Maya Center, said that immigrants are increasingly wary and typically avoid any interaction with law enforcement.

“The mayor has said he will do everything possible so people are safe and trust the authorities,” said Jimenez.

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