Translations and beyond

Research seeks to improve severe weather communication and response in Spanish-speaking communities

As a child, Joseph Trujillo Falcón was terrified of thunderstorms. The loud booms and crashes would have him hiding inside, until one day his mother dragged him onto the porch. She told him to look at the beauty within the storm. His perspective changed.

Born in Peru, Trujillo Falcón moved from what can be described as a mild, coastal climate to the storm-riddled Midwest United States.

“At the time, I was translating everything from news reports to weather reports from Spanish to English for my family,” said Trujillo Falcón.

Joseph Trujillo sitting at a table with a computer tablet in front of him.
Researcher Joseph Trujillo Falcón participating in a NOAA Hazardous Weather Testbed experiment in 2019. (Photo by James Murnan/NOAA)

Trujillo Falcón’s fear of thunderstorms and the needs of his community encouraged his path into meteorology, particularly bilingual risk and crisis communication.

“I felt my community wasn’t as prepared as others and communication was part of the issue,” he said.

Trujillo Falcón wanted to be a broadcast meteorologist. However, during an internship, he realized very quickly that, in order to improve weather outreach to Spanish-speaking communities, translations had to improve. Today he researches how Spanish-speaking communities receive, respond, and act to certain messages and climate hazards.

“I realized there were some words that couldn’t be translated equally from English to Spanish,” said Trujillo Falcón. “We only had so many resources. I did a 180 during my undergraduate degree and changed my focus. I realized there is a big community need, but there’s not a big resource for proper translations and research. I said, if I was in broadcast [meteorology] right now, I would be burned out and frustrated.”

Lost in translation

Trujillo Falcón left the world of broadcasting to begin severe weather and communication research at the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations (CIWRO) with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) and the NOAA National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center (SPC). Partnering with three industry giants allowed Trujillo Falcón to access the resources needed to help his community.

Fast forward to today. Trujillo Falcón has recommended a new SPC risk communication scale model based on his research with SPC forecasters and research with language experts.

“Depending on where you’re from, our Spanish can vary slightly and our language is beautiful and diverse. However, when it comes to the severe weather community, we want something all can understand,” he said. “This has blossomed into studies and insights into this community that we’ve never had before. We’re advocating beyond unifying translations and proposing an infrastructure to ensure these efforts strive.”

A group of people gathered and talking at a table.
Research Joseph Trujillo Falcón during the 2019 NOAA Hazardous Weather Testbed. Researchers collaborated with NOAA National Weather Service forecasters, broadcast meteorologists, and emergency managers to get their feedback on experimental forecast tools during the experiment in 2019. (Photo by James Murnan/NOAA)

Understanding the community

Trujillo Falcón says creating words that are easily understandable to all Spanish speakers is the first step. The next step is to better understand factors that affect how Hispanic and Latinx communities perceive, ingest, and respond to weather information and the enterprise.

“Latin American countries don’t often have National Weather Service services like those in the United States,” said Trujillo Falcón. “Many in those areas don’t have access to meteorologists. I feel our next steps are figuring out how one’s heritage, or aspects of culture that are inherited from ancestral origin, impacts how they look at hazards.”

For example, for some in Latin America, the word tornado means a strong gust of wind — not an image of swirling dust, debris, and devastation. Trujillo Falcón explains tornado warnings are not a part of Hispanic and Latinx culture.

A tornado with debris on the ground.
(Photo by Morgan Schneider. OU CIMMS/NOAA NSSL)

“Even if you heard a good translation, you may not know the implications,” he said.

Trujillo Falcón’s research also looks at social inequities — like socioeconomic and immigration status — while analyzing the influence of Hispanic and Latinx heritage. Trujillo Falcón says these factors also influence how people learn about severe weather and what precautions people take into account during storms.

“We have to consider what generation immigrant a person is and if they’ve seen a tornado before — there are a lot of factors,” he said. “They may not know a storm shelter is an important investment. Some outright might not be able to afford it or qualify for post-disaster government programs that aid them in recovery efforts. This research opens a new landscape and allows us to dig deeper into the Hispanic and Latinx communities. We hope to show organizations how to connect with communities to ensure they are safe.”

Trujillo Falcón says he continues to strive to positively impact his community.

As he celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, he says it goes beyond Spanish speakers.

“It includes indigenous languages, Portuguese, Spanish, and all different parts of Latin America,” he said. “Latin America has its own variety of cultures and languages. The community is so diverse and it has so much beauty. This Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s celebrate all of it and embrace it.”

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