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Language, communication a concern as Merced County communities faced flooding

Esther Quintanilla
Flooding in the small Merced County community of Planada reached up to five feet in some areas after an atmospheric river brought heavy rain to the state.

PLANADA, Calif. – After the flooding endured by the tiny Merced County community of Planada at the start of the year, recovery efforts still continue for many residents.

The majority of Planada’s population is Latino, and most of them primarily speak Spanish, according to census data.

So when deputies with the Merced County Sheriff’s Department went door to door on Jan. 10 in the middle of the night to evacuate families, most residents didn’t understand how severe the flooding had gotten.

Access to trusted information was a concern during the storms. According to Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinosa, whose district oversees the community of Planada, earlier communication in Spanish could have helped some residents experiencing the floods.

“All the information that was going out was not being translated in the beginning,” Espinosa says.

Since then, many disaster resources have been made available in Spanish. The California Office of Emergency Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency confirmed they provided bilingual support as recovery efforts got underway.

Some local organizations are also helping bridge the gap between the federal agencies and residents.

Cultiva la Salud, a Fresno-based non-profit that focuses on creating health equity in the San Joaquin Valley, has been at the forefront of ensuring residents are kept up to date with accurate information, according to organizer Anabel Serna.

“The main issue that we’re seeing is misinformation,” Serna said in a recent interview.

Serna said information travels fast in a community, but especially during the flooding disaster it was a concern that some wouldn’t have the right information when they needed it.

“Neighbors may easily trust each other, it’s possible not all the information they have is completely accurate,” she said in Spanish.

At a town hall meeting in the city of Merced this week, residents affected by the flooding told city officials the city response was not organized.

Residents said they were being shuffled between federal, state and local agencies when seeking relief. They asked the city to provide its own relief, such as relocation assistance.

Additionally, many Planada residents were denied federal relief because of their immigration status, advocates said.

Across the state, FEMA has approved millions in aid to help residents recover from the storms California experienced.

Central Valley Journalism Collaborative Reporter Brianna Vaccari contributed to this report.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.