887 Integrating Faith-Based Leaders into Hazardous Weather Communications for Highly Vulnerable Neighborhoods in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas

Tuesday, 24 January 2017
4E (Washington State Convention Center )
Barry S. Goldsmith, NOAA/NWSFO, Brownsville, TX; and M. M. Torres, L. Wasserman, and W. Donner
Manuscript (755.9 kB)

Handout (3.0 MB)

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is home to some of the most impoverished communities in the United States.  Tens of thousands of residents live in substandard housing, many in more than one thousand minimally regulated settlements or subdivisions. The buildings and surrounding infrastructure are vulnerable to hazardous weather, most notably destructive windstorms and flooding rains. Nearly all of the residents speak only Spanish at home, and a sizable number speak English poorly or not at all.  Two other common denominators are found in these communities:  Dedication to family - the ties that bind multiple generations; and devotion to either the Catholic or Evangelical Christian faith.

Studies conducted in the aftermath of significant meteorological events have shown that   vulnerable communities are most severely impacted by them. Impacts include the level of damage to buildings and infrastructure, and the time required to recover and rebuild.  Embedded in some of the research are data on how communities made decisions to prepare and act on threats.  For many residents of these communities, the decision to prepare or act falls on whether the information can be trusted.  Neighborhood leaders, including faith-based organizations, are often perceived as the most trustworthy.

In May, 2016, a workshop was held to bring together stakeholders in the Weather Enterprise (National Weather Service, Emergency Management Officials, Broadcast Media, and Academics) with Faith-Based Leaders, Volunteers Active in Disasters, and other Non-Governmental Organizations to begin building a foundation to reach out to these communities to help them grow their resiliency to weather hazards.  Initial discussions focused on how Faith-Based leaders could become force-multipliers to educate congregations on the importance of building community resiliency in the face of life-threatening weather hazards.

A coordinated effort among these stakeholders began in late 2016 to build ready, responsive, and resilient families in high-risk communities across the Rio Grande Valley.  A program was started to bring NOAA Weather Radio receivers to every church and community resource center, as well as to residents of the subdivisions.  The program included training leaders on how to tune the radios to receive Spanish-language broadcasts in order for them to show residents how to do the same. Plans were devised to notify congregants and others in vulnerable communities of potential threats up to a day in advance through distribution of information by multiple means, such as by phone, e-mail, or smart device application. A framework was developed to have local churches open in the hours prior to the arrival of destructive winds or other hazards in or near vulnerable subdivisions.  The churches would provide a safe, trusted refuge with the goal of protecting lives that would otherwise be at risk in substandard housing.

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