Minn. Officials Look for Ways to Teach Immigrants What Tornado Sirens Mean

Officials in Minnesota are looking for ways to teach new immigrants what tornado sirens mean.

Mao Thao had no idea what it meant the first time she heard a tornado siren go off. The recently arrived Hmong refugee spoke no English, and she grew terrified when the loud wailing erupted.

Thao thought she was about to be arrested. She dropped her bicycle and ran all the way home. “I thought the cops were coming after me,” she said.

As tornado season returns, emergency officials statewide are increasingly concerned that some of the state’s newest residents may not know that the loud wail means seek shelter immediately.

Many immigrants have no idea what a tornado is or how deadly Minnesota storms can be.

Selena Lee of the Neighborhood House community center in St. Paul said one of her clients was killed in a thunderstorm last year in Minneapolis. He was unaware of the dangers of being outside in the storm. He left his car and died when he was struck by a falling tree branch.

Lee said the man was one of many Hmong immigrants who don’t know what to do during a storm or what the sirens mean. In many cases, new immigrants speak very little English so warnings on the television or radio don’t help.

In Stearns County, officials are preparing for a severe weather drill designed for the growing numbers of recent immigrants.

The drill is planned for late May at a St. Cloud-area mobile home park. It will test how management and emergency workers are able to communicate with the estimated 300 residents who don’t speak English.

Bel Clare Estates has more than 800 residents and would be one of St. Cloud’s most vulnerable areas if a tornado hit, said the park’s general manager, Vern Larsen. He said the residents don’t always use the park’s shelters.

Marv Klug, Stearns County director of emergency management, said local media have been contacted to develop Spanish-language announcements for TV and radio. But different approaches may be needed with other languages, Klug said.

The Somali language, for example, has a relatively new written form, so literacy rates vary, Klug said. County officials plan to identify major contacts in an immigrant community, such as restaurant owners, to start a chain of disaster communication.

In Redwood County of southwestern Minnesota, where many Hmong work in food processing plants, officials are taking a different approach.

County officials are working on translating severe-weather brochures into Hmong, Sheriff Rick Morris said. But, he said, the most effective way to get out information is through the students who speak English and can bring that information home.

Some immigrant groups are also getting involved to help alert new residents about severe weather.

Thao, the woman who was frightened when she heard her first tornado siren, now works with Emergency & Community Health Outreach (ECHO). She has hosted several short public TV programs in Hmong. One tackled severe weather. One bit of advice she gives: Look at the colors on radar screens.

With such a vast array of cultures in the state, new immigrants and refugees can come up with unusual misinterpretations of the warning sirens.

Abdi Warsame, a Somali refugee who works at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis, said a woman he knows thought the first tornado siren she heard was one of the great horns signaling the apocalypse.