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Austin's Asian communities faced added challenge during the Texas freeze last month

Hojun Choi
Austin American-Statesman

Among the tens of thousands in Austin scrambling for critical information on the widespread power outages during the record-setting Texas freeze last month were many in the city's Asian communities, who faced not only frigid temperatures but also a language barrier that worsened their feeling of isolation during the disaster. 

Community advocates say the city took too long to send out storm updates in their languages and argue that it's time for officials to do a better job of connecting with Austin's Asian population. 

Several city agencies didn't share information translated into Vietnamese and Arabic through social media until Feb. 18 — days after the power outages began and at a point when Austin Energy was reporting that power had already been restored to more than 90% of its customers.

The city's Asian American Resource Center and the office of Council Member Greg Casar sent out a resource guide translated into Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese the next day. The resource guide provided information on where to get food and water and how to start applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. It was eventually made available in 10 languages, including Spanish, Nepali, Hindi, Arabic, Sugbuanon and Tagalog.

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Casar said his office worked with the resource center and the city's Asian American Quality of Life Commission to find volunteers who could translate information. But the city should not have to depend on outside help for those services, he said. 

"Our Asian American community is diverse and the fastest-growing population in Austin. Every single family must be able to receive official information in a timely manner, in the language they understand," Casar said. "For too long, many members of our community haven’t been able to hear directly from elected officials or the city." 

Casar's office in 2016 commissioned an audit across Austin to identify and study language barriers. One of the findings was that city departments were failing to meet the language access needs of many non-English speaking residents. 

In the years after the audit, the city announced plans for improving language access services for non-English speakers and added a coordinator position to help residents find interpreters to communicate issues with city departments. 

"There’s been progress since 2016, but this disaster shows we still have real work to do. I’m committed to ensuring that the city honors its pledge to language access, especially during future emergency situations for our Asian American residents and neighbors," Casar said. 

According to U.S. census estimates from 2016 to 2019, about 24% of those who identified themselves as Asian or Pacific Islander in Travis County also said they have limited English proficiency. That percentage does not include people who said they speak Indo-European languages at home such as Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi, which are used in South Asia.

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Jessica King, interim director of Austin's public information office, said city departments currently depend on bilingual staff members or outside vendors for translation and interpretation services.

King said a language access manager at the city's communication office works with people at the department level to assess needs and resources for translation and interpretation.

"Unfortunately, just as the community experienced problems with power loss, internet outages and phone service disruptions, our staff and vendors did as well. This made it challenging to contact staff and our vendors to get information to them and back in a timely manner," King told the American-Statesman. "This is an item we are going to have to look at as part of our after-action process." 

Advocates speak out

Pooja Sethi serves on the city's Asian American Quality of Life Commission and lives in the Great Hills area in Northwest Austin. 

Sethi said people who are part of the commission reached out desperately to volunteers during the winter storm to get information translated in Asian languages.

"We need to have these systems already in place so we’re not scrambling over text message trying to figure this out," Sethi said. 

Pooja Sethi, left, speaks with Charu Sharma outside her home in Northwest Austin on Wednesday. Sethi serves on Austin's Asian American Quality of Life Commission and lives in the same neighborhood as Sharma. She believes that during Texas' freeze last month, many in the city's Asian community faced not only confusion about widespread power outages but also a language barrier that limited their access to information and needed resources.

While translated information went out on Facebook, Nextdoor and Twitter, Sethi said many in the city's Asian communities did not see the information because they do not use those social media platforms.

In response to the city's actions during and after the outages, Sethi said she created a survey to help identify how to best reach out to the different Asian communities in the city. 

“I think moving forward, we really need to come up with a strategy to reach out to the Asian community as a whole," Sethi said.

Lucy Nguyen, a program manager at the Asian American Community Health Initiative, said her organization was one of the groups asked to help with translation services during the outages.

The organization creates networks of contacts within each Asian community, including in the Nepali, Burmese, Chinese and Vietnamese communities, and helps people who do not speak English find health care. 

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“I think moving forward, we really need to come up with a strategy to reach out to the Asian community as a whole," said Pooja Sethi, who criticized the city for its lack of Asian-language resources during last month's freeze.

Nguyen, who works with representatives from multiple local Asian communities, said volunteers are always willing to lend a hand to better serve those who speak limited English.

However, she said many of the clients the organization serves reached out with questions that only city officials could answer.  

"At first we had a lot of questions from our members asking why their power was out, where is my water? There was a lot of misunderstanding going on because they can’t actually understand what the news is saying or what’s being said on Twitter," Nguyen said.

She said the February storm and the delays getting translated information out highlights a need to expand language access to the Asian community in Austin. 

“They’re a part of our community whether they speak English or not. If we want to make sure that Austin is this prosperous place we say that it is, we have to provide for all the groups that reside here,” Nguyen said. 

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Volunteers do what they can

Even without information in their languages about water distribution sites and shelter locations, many in the Asian American community held their own events to pass out items such as food and water, Nguyen said. 

One event, held Feb. 28 at MT Supermarket at Braker Lane and Lamar Boulevard, drew more than 240 families in need of resources. Organizers said dozens had to be turned away because of a lack of supplies. 

“There are communities out there that are just working among themselves. They’re not getting help from the government or the city because they don’t know how to access those things,” Nguyen said. 

Members of Open Eyes Beyond Border, a local nonprofit, organized a winter storm relief event at the MT Supermarket in North Austin last month.

Chloe Tran, co-founder of a local charity organization called Open Eyes Beyond Border, said her group helped put together the winter storm relief event at MT Supermarket last month.

“We wanted to help people to ease what they went through during the storm. So this might not be rescuing them at all, but it lets them at least feel that someone is caring for them," Tran said. 

Tran is also one of the founders of Trúc Việt, a local nonprofit that, in addition to organizing educational and cultural events, provides translation services to local government agencies. The group also hosts free English and Vietnamese language classes for the Vietnamese American community in Austin, according to its website

Organizations such as Trúc Việt can help the city catch some of the nuance that might be lost through translation services. 

“Sometimes the city sends material to Vietnam to translate it, but the vocabulary is not the same as what they use here, so we have to fix it," Tran said. 

Tran said she knows some city departments are working to strengthen their network within the Asian community in Austin through organizations such as hers. 

She said people in her community need to hear more directly from city officials and leaders. 

“If they can get support from the city, there will be more trust in the government system, right? If you get support, you get trust,” she said.

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