Hawaii government agencies aren’t translating any of their hurricane-related announcements despite the island state’s relatively large community of people with limited English proficiency.

Instead, some are relying on radio stations to reach people who don’t speak English.

John M. Cummings III, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management, said basic disaster prep information has already been translated into a dozen languages. But when it comes to ongoing updates about the changing weather situation, the city relies on KNDI, which broadcasts in multiple languages, including but not limited to Vietnamese, Chuukese and Samoan.

Few government updates and other announcements are translated into languages other than English, though Hawaii has a fairly large number of residents with limited English skills.

Honolulu has the highest rate of residents who don’t speak English very well — about 15 percent — compared with other counties.

Maui County has the next-highest percentage of residents who don’t speak English very well.

Rod Antone, spokesman for Maui County, says the county isn’t translating its announcements but has been sending its updates to the island’s Filipino FM radio station, where they are interpreted in both Tagalog and Ilocano.

Maui County also has a relatively large Spanish-speaking population. Spanish is the number one most-requested language in the island’s courts.

A spokeswoman for Hawaii County Civil Defense said she did not know of any interpretation or translation of emergency announcements. A spokeswoman for Kauai County said no translations are being provided but that individuals can request interpreters.

Richard Rapoza, spokesman for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said the organization has translated brochures into different languages previously, but isn’t doing it so for emergency alerts.

“For this, because of the speed it moves at, we don’t offer translations,” he said.

A spokeswoman for FEMA said the agency hasn’t sent out any emergency notices and is relying on the state and local governments to get the word out.

Hawaii residents speak more than 200 languages, according to Aphirak Bamrungruan, the director of the state’s Office of Language Access.

Bamrungruan said he had a meeting with FEMA on Thursday morning regarding how people with limited English proficiency aren’t getting enough information. But it’s tough to resolve given limited resources. Bamrungruan is one of only two employees in his office.

“I’m not sure how we will address the issue at this time,” he said. “To be honest we don’t have the best solution.”

Bamrungruan said he told the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency that he’s available to connect them with interpreter services throughout the disaster.

He also is reaching out to community organizations like We Are Oceania, which connects recent immigrants from Micronesia to services, to ensure they have updated information.

“(People with limited English proficiency) should be able to have equal access and meaningful access to what’s going on,” Bamrungruan said.

“I know it’s challenging. During this time it’s really difficult. It’s a time that everyone has to come together and look at this issue.”

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

A message to our readers

Civil Beat is a nonprofit newsroom. Without your support, our stories don’t just go unread – they go untold. This year, Civil Beat is a proud participant in NewsMatch – the nation’s largest fundraising campaign to increase support for nonprofit news organizations like Honolulu Civil Beat. Now until December 31st, a group of national foundations will match each individual donation to Civil Beat, dollar-for-dollar, up to $1,000. Now is your chance to double your impact!

About the Author