Picture boards to help hurricane shelters overcome language barriers

By Danielle Thomas - bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Shelter workers in Harrison and Hancock counties now have a new resource to help keep the lines of communication open this hurricane season. Emergency management officials say the shelter's staff will use picture boards to better understand storm evacuees who are unable to say what they need.

Harrison County and Hancock County emergency management directors say there is an increasingly diverse population in south Mississippi, so shelter workers have to do more to get past language barriers and other communication obstacles.

Imagine you and your family are forced to evacuate your home and go to a shelter. Now imagine no one there speaks your language.  The non-profit organization, Boat People SOS, says for the coast Vietnamese population this situation is too often a reality during hurricanes.

Kiet Nguyen of Boat People SOS said, "It's really hard when you try to communicate and the person that you're talking to doesn't understand what you're trying to tell them. It's kind of frustrating at times."

That's why Nguyen says Boat People S.O.S. was happy to provide Vietnamese translation for Hancock and Harrison counties' communication picture boards. The boards also feature drawings and text in English and Spanish.

"We all have language barriers," said Hancock County Emergency Management Director Brian Adam. "We have Hispanics, Vietnamese coming into the shelters. We don't have anybody that can communicate with them, and unfortunately our translators are few and far between. So this will certainly help somewhat bridge that gap until we can get a full fledge interpreter there.

Emergency officials say the pictures boards are designed for all levels of literacy because people can point to the picture that describes their illness or situation. The purpose of the boards is to help shelter workers communicate with people with special needs or those too traumatized to speak.

"It's not only the language barrier," said Rupert Lacy, Harrison County's Emergency Management Director. "It could be somebody with a special needs issue, that their computer translator has stopped because of no power. So it's bridging several gaps at one opportunity for us to be able to community."

Officials say communications picture boards aren't just for shelters after natural disasters but these smaller boards will be used regularly by ambulance workers on medical calls, police officers making traffic stops and hospitals.

"Every day a first responder is faced with language barriers so this could be used every day," said Adam.

The University of Southern Mississippi and DuPont were part of the partnership that made the picture boards possible. Officials say these boards are the first of their kind to be used in our region.

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