Before disasters hit California, these workers get the word out in many languages

A woman poses for a portrait, kneeling in front of a tree while wearing a mask with the Spanish word "Listos"
Alma Bowen is the founder of Nuestra Comunidad, a nonprofit that helps vulnerable groups prepare for emergencies.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The night the deadly Tubbs fire broke out in 2017, Alma Bowen, then an emergency services dispatcher for Sonoma County, experienced a life-changing moment.

For 20 hours, she answered 911 calls, many from Latinos who spoke Spanish and didn’t understand or were confused by the emergency alerts they were receiving in English.

The Tubbs fire destroyed or damaged at least 5,500 structures and killed at least 22 people in the mountainous area north of Santa Rosa, authorities said.

The experience persuaded Bowen to leave her job and start a nonprofit to offer Spanish-language CPR training, 911 awareness classes, and disaster recovery and preparedness workshops.

Last year, her organization and dozens of other nonprofits received grant money from the state as part of a $50-million outreach program called Listos California. The mission: prepare Latinos and other vulnerable groups for major disasters.

“We know that people who are socially isolated or live in poverty, have language barriers, or other access or functional needs challenges need to be the top priority for preparedness campaigns,” said Karen Baker, architect and co-chair of Listos California.

This year, a slower but deadlier disaster demanded the groups’ attention: the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has disproportionately infected and killed Latinos across the state. The state has reported more than 1.8 million confirmed cases of the virus and more than 19,000 related deaths.

“You had to shift from what might happen to what was happening,” Baker said. “What was happening was that people were dying of this thing called COVID … and when you looked at the data and saw diverse communities getting hit even harder than less diverse ones — it was more of a call to action.”


Listos California expanded its campaign in July to boost prevention efforts in areas hit hard by the pandemic, such as the predominantly Latino Imperial County, where 11 Lotería-themed billboard ads were placed in the county to help slow the spread of the virus.

The billboards included pink, blue and green Lotería cards — designed by a local artist to draw attention — with safety messages in Spanglish. The colorful ads were one of many targeting bilingual communities in the state. The campaign also put out safety and informative guides in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog and other languages.

Statewide, Listos California says it has reached 1.6 million people.

California is famously prone to disasters such as earthquakes and floods, but it was wildfires that were instrumental in highlighting the need to boost disaster preparedness that was tailored around the needs of vulnerable groups such as the poor, elderly and people with disabilities.

But there was a considerable amount of focus on the state’s largest ethnic group — Latinos. Leaders even named the statewide campaign in Spanish.

Major disasters often hit Latinos hardest because they tend to be at an economic disadvantage and live in communities that are underfunded, officials said. Latinos also hold a large percentage of essential jobs in the state, including manufacturing and agriculture positions.

Historically, public warning systems have long been structured with little input from the Latino population, which includes immigrants, migrant workers and Indigenous groups. Language barriers meant exclusion from vital information or emergency service response.

When the devastating Thomas fire raced through Ventura County in 2017, many residents were able to evacuate first while Spanish-speaking immigrants were left in limbo to figure out what to do or relied on their children for translation of emergency alerts, officials said. After complaints from nonprofit organizations, Ventura County began to send out information in Spanish. By then, the fire had been burning for 10 days, according to a state audit.

The pandemic brought its own challenges. It has taken a devastating toll on Latino residents, who make up 39% of the state’s population but account for 59% of coronavirus infections and 49% of related deaths.

Baker said nonprofits and community-based organizations were given the flexibility to spend 20% of the grant money to help with COVID-19 prevention efforts in their regions. But because many couldn’t have gatherings, organizations had to come up with creative ways to reach people, such as hosting videoconferences.

Bowen said her organization, Nuestra Comunidad, did that but also held outdoor workshops for migrant workers at vineyards and agricultural fields. She handed out masks and disaster preparedness guidebooks. She also attended food giveaways to reach more residents in Sonoma County.

Listos California recently launched a new initiative with the United Way of Fresno and Madera Counties, which partnered with the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities and Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project to create audio files with information on COVID-19 and emergency preparedness for those who speak Mixteco and other Indigenous languages from Mexico. Many are not fluent in Spanish. They also made similar audio files in Punjabi, Hmong and Spanish.

Before launching Nuestra Comunidad, Bowen often questioned why Sonoma County wasn’t engaging the more than 130,000 Latinos who lived and worked in the region about 911 emergency services.

Bowen said as a dispatcher she saw how immigrants and migrant workers hesitated to make emergency calls. The problem was twofold: They didn’t always know exactly what kind of an event they should dial 911 for, and they often came from homelands where there was little trust in government. Some who were in the country illegally also worried about their possible deportation.

When the Tubbs fire broke out, Bowen found herself having to inform Latino residents about calling 211 for information — not 911. They could receive help, and it wouldn’t be used against them, she told immigrants.

One such call that stuck with her involved two migrant workers who didn’t know the address of the vineyard where they lived and worked. Neither could read English. Bowen said she spent several minutes figuring out their location based on letters they could recognize. When she finally did, it was too late. The men had to flee.

“It was the first time I couldn’t send help,” she said. “There was not a damn thing I could do about it.”

A woman wearing gloves holds up a stack of masks to hand out to drivers
As a former 911 dispatcher, Alma Bowen saw how immigrants and migrant workers hesitated to make emergency calls. Many aren’t sure what events to call 911 for, she said, and others come from homelands where there was little trust in government.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Bowen said the Listos California grants have helped her organizations boost their community outreach efforts. She hopes funding for the campaign will continue.

In the small rural town of Ukiah, several residents got together to form Ukiah Vecinos en Acción (Ukiah Neighbors in Action, or UVA). The coalition was formed in reaction to the anti-immigrant sentiment that helped lead to Donald Trump’s election in 2016. What started out as an effort to alleviate immigrant concerns expanded to provide Spanish-language information on COVID-19 and wildfires.

Jackeline Orozco, a member of the coalition, which has received grant money from Listos California, said that for years government agencies in the city and county had failed to put out information in Spanish whenever disasters struck the region.

“We’re also part of this economy; we’re part of the workforce,” Orozco said. “It’s also our right to receive information in our own language too.”

In July, spurred by the fires and COVID-19, the group sent a letter to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors urging it to start sending out vital alerts in Spanish. The group also urged the county to hire certified translators and hold news conferences in English and Spanish. The letter was signed and supported by other grass-roots organizations in the area.

The statewide campaign to improve disaster preparedness among Latinos and other groups appears to be having an effect.

Last year, Omaira Baptista woke up to a mandatory evacuation alert from Napa County. Her home was in the path of the Kincade fire. Baptista, who arrived in the country from Venezuela two years before, didn’t understand English. It wasn’t until a friend called that she realized she had to evacuate. She said she grabbed whatever she could.

“It was a traumatic experience,” she said.

But early this year, while Baptista was working at the UpValley Family Center, the Listos California campaign caught her attention. She signed up for a disaster planning workshop and registered for Nixle alerts in Spanish. She learned about emergency services and how best to keep her family safe during evacuations.

About two months ago, Baptista got another alert in the early hours. The Glass fire was ravaging wine country, and she needed to evacuate. This time, she didn’t panic.

“I grabbed my documents, clothes, medicine, and filled the luggage,” she said. “I had my car facing toward our escape route.”

When the mandatory evacuations came through, she grabbed her keys and fled with her family to Lodi as she had done last year, when she was less prepared and their escape felt like a mad dash.

“It wasn’t as stressful as the last time,” Baptista said. “It was such a big difference.”