Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A Long Island university’s efforts to reach Mandarin-speaking workers hit on the value of social resilience.
On an afternoon in fall 2016, Meghan McPherson sat in a plush maroon swivel chair in a Long Island nail salon, where the TV blared about Hurricane Matthew’s impending arrival. Working on McPherson’s cuticles, the Mandarin-speaking owner, Katrina Zhan, mentioned she was having trouble understanding everything the newscasters were saying about the storm, which was churning up the Atlantic seaboard. Would the impact be as bad in New York as in North Carolina?
“We want to stay safe, too,” Zhan told McPherson, who works nearby as the assistant director of Adelphi University’s Center for Health Innovation. Those words, McPherson says now, brought to mind the gap between existing resiliency efforts in North Hempstead—the town where the salon is located—and a population that needs them most.
As an emergency preparedness expert, McPherson was aware of how vulnerable service workers like Zhan can be in the face of disaster, particularly since immigrants with limited English skills and transportation means hold these jobs in disproportionate numbers. They’re also often the last ones to evacuate in the event of an emergency. As the journalist David Rohde observed in 2012, Manhattan residents were ordering deliveries and shopping for groceries up to an hour or so before Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012—and legions of cooks, cashiers, and hotel laborers were still on the job serving them, many working because they couldn’t afford the lost wages.
McPherson showed Zhan a short hazard-prep PSA produced in 2015 by Adelphi and North Hempstead officials with subtitles in Mandarin, the second-most spoken language in town. Zhan was surprised and relieved to see hear the tips—stash spare batteries and plenty of water, more or less—in words she understood. But McPherson realized the video wasn’t doing its job if Zhan and her staff had never seen it.
Hurricane Matthew wound up sparing New York, but disaster risks are on the rise with a changing climate. So McPherson set out to paper every salon in town with notices on how to plan, prepare, and evacuate in anticipation of natural hazards and terror attacks. North Hempstead’s public officials gave her their blessing. “If we can make emergency preparedness information more accessible for these populations by translating it into their native languages, then we have an obligation to do so,” says Judi Bosworth, North Hempstead’s town supervisor. McPherson personally identified and visited more than 120 salons in five days, handing out more than 400 pamphlets.
On the front page: a friendly greeting from local leaders and Adelphi. Inside: FEMA’s official guide on how to prepare and plan for emergencies, printed in English, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, and Spanish—plus translated explanations on how to use 311.
Some salon staffers didn’t know what to make of her when she bustled in, carrying documents stamped with the seal of a federal agency; many immigrant workers in Nassau County are undocumented. But McPherson gamely carried her university badge with her, and assured concerned workers that she wasn’t seeking personal information. She simply wanted to make sure they stayed safe. “I got hugs and thank you’s,” she says. “This information is empowering.”
Seated in her spotless salon, Polish Couture, on a Thursday morning in April, Zhan says that not all of the suggestions were new to her; candles, for example, she already knew to keep on hand. But the gesture was bigger than the information itself. “American people doing this for Asian people—it feels good,” she says. “Because many people are just working for the American people.”
McPherson’s work puts a twist on a tried-and-true style of community outreach. Local governments around the greater New York City area have emergency preparedness outreach programs in churches and schools. But connecting directly with workplaces might be a smarter tactic: That’s often where people are spending the majority of their time.
McPherson hopes to scale up her outreach efforts to the Spanish-speaking workforce of North Hampstead’s 1,000-plus restaurants. She’ll have to recruit Spanish-speaking colleagues from Adelphi to do it, but she says it’s essential that they physically visit every single location. It takes more than bottled water and batteries to help communities bounce back from disaster, after all; research shows that neighborhoods with high levels of cohesion and trust can see fewer fatalities and recover faster than those without.
For non-English-speaking immigrants already living and working on the fringes of urban society, a positive connection with a local institution may be even more meaningful today, given President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies—and proposed cuts to FEMA. “In this current administration, it is even more important to reach out to our neighbors who are immigrants and tell them what an important part of our community they are,” says McPherson. “I can’t think of a more important way than to say that we want them to be safe.”