Deadly tornado shows that in natural disasters Latinos struggle to access aid

Latino residents in Rodgers, Ark., were among the hardest hit by a tornado over the Memorial Day weekend. A series of deadly tornadoes hit the central United States over the Memorial Day weekend, causing millions of dollars in damage. RACHELL SANCHEZ-SMITH/LATINO REPORTER

ROGERS, Ark. – Tornado sirens pierced the night air of Cinthia Nava’s Arkansas town last May as she grabbed her four children and rushed into the crawlspace below their house only to realize from below that the storm was ripping holes through her living room, her kitchen and even her garage.

Roof shingles and broken tree limbs still litter the streets of Rogers, where onlookers can see where the tornado jumped paths, tearing up stretches of neighborhoods and long-time local businesses.

“You know how they say you can hear, like, a train coming,” Nava, 30, said. “I heard it.”

Memorial Day weekend brought a wave of destructive tornadoes to Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, killing at least 15 people and, according to the Associated Press, leaving behind millions of dollars in destruction.

Months later, many Latino residents in Arkansas like Nava and her family are grappling with the aftermath; facing a long road of filing insurance claims, reviewing contractor bills, and planning visits with government entities. But for many Latino families, socio-economic struggles, language barriers and immigration status make recovering from natural disasters more challenging than white families facing similar devastation.

Memorial Day weekend brought destructive tornadoes to Rodgers, Ark., leaving behind millions of dollars in destruction. RACHELL SANCHEZ-SMITH/LATINO REPORTER

Black and Latino families are more likely to be displaced by natural disasters, according to reporting done by Forbes, making the recovery from natural disasters worse along racial lines.

Hispanic homeowners are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to not have homeowners insurance, according to a Consumer Federation of America insurance report earlier this year.

Nava said that living in Arkansas and just outside of tornado alley, tornado warnings are fairly common during the spring, but most are “false alarms, until it isn’t.” 

Storms that once consistently impacted communities more to the east in Oklahoma and Kansas are now moving to different regions, changing “Tornado Alley” to include more of Arkansas and the deep south, confirmed earlier this year by the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. 

Houses in these previously unaffected areas may not be equipped with tornado shelters, warning systems and city resources.

Salvadoreños Unidos Para Arkansas is one of several groups helping Latino families, like small grocers and neighborhood businesses after the storm. The organization partnered with local restaurants for hot meals and provided people with basics like soap and water. 

Yoselín Flores, founder and treasurer, said she is proud of the work they have done. But she fears many may not know about FEMA and the resources available. 

“I know that the government was supposed to provide help, but I don’t know, they haven’t told us how anyone can approach them and get help,” Flores said in Spanish.

A series of deadly tornadoes hit the central United States over the Memorial Day weekend, causing millions of dollars in damage. RACHELL SANCHEZ-SMITH/LATINO REPORTER

In a press release last year, FEMA acknowledged that Latino communities benefit from specific measures and targeted messaging, which are more effective in helping Latinos prepare for natural disasters.

Flores said that people asking for help from her non-profit tell her that they’ve been paying their home insurance for 20 years and never filed claims, but are still being denied for repairs, making the recovery process even harder and wishing “they didn’t have insurance in the first place and had just saved the money on their own.”

Zero-Hour, a nationwide climate advocacy group, works to educate communities about climate change and how communities of color are most at risk of bearing the brunt of natural disasters. 

Amelia Southern-Uribe is the group’s director of Southeastern Chapters and they say that the rise of natural disasters, like this most recent tornado, exemplify the effects of climate change and environmental racism in the South.

“It”s Black and individual communities that are harmed first and most severely, and because our communities are viewed as dispensable and disposable,” Uribe said. “We’re more likely to live in areas where extreme temperatures are expected to create even more natural disasters.”

More than 70 percent of Latino adults, according to the Pew Research Centers, agree that climate change is having an impact on their community, echoing the reality of the effects of more disastrous storms and extreme weather.

Uribe said the situation is exacerbated by systemic issues and institutional racism embedded in everything from insurance payouts to governmental messaging.

“We live in areas that are strategically sacrificed, and so we get less money when natural disasters happen,” Uribe said. “It happened in the same communities in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit, black homeowners got $8,000 less than their white neighbors.”

A series of deadly tornadoes hit the central United States over the Memorial Day weekend, causing millions of dollars in damage. RACHELL SANCHEZ-SMITH/LATINO REPORTER

Language barriers can intensify the burdens that communities of color bear when trying to rebuild and prepare for future disasters. 

“I oftentimes come across a lot of misinformation in Spanish about climate change, but it’s not even about the misinformation,” Uribe said. “There’s a lack of translated knowledge about climate change.”

Both organizations shared a spreadsheet of resources made by Northwest Arkansas citizens and city websites — also available in Spanish — for people in need to access across their social media and landing pages. 

It will be six months before Nava’s electricity is restored, since the storm took down the street’s main power line.

The home where she has lived for 15 years with her mother, brother and her children, has been uninhabitable since May.

“There’s mold, like in the walls, because the water came through. We’ve had no electricity, it’s been hot and [insurance providers] just don’t see that,” Nava said. “You can’t really see that stuff until you get into it. So I’m sure there’s stuff that we haven’t discovered yet that will need fixing.”

After all that, Nava said, she and her father, who owns the home, decided it would be easier to sell the house than deal with the repairs.

Tornadoes over Memorial Day weekend caused millions of dollars in damages in rural communities like Rodgers, Ark. RACHELL SANCHEZ-SMITH/LATINO REPORTER

“I do get sad because sometimes I see that other people already have electricity, they are already in their homes, everyone is already fixing things, and we are still here packing the house up,” she said. “This is like packing up and saying goodbye to my childhood.”

Even in disaster, Nava has found unexpected silver linings and allies in the neighborhood. One of them is her neighbor, a white woman with whom she had no prior relationship who has been helping by entertaining the kids and getting meals. As she puts it, the little details make the difference in the long journey of healing ahead. 

“I think it’s the beginning of something new,” she said. “As our children are looking at us, you want to be able to give them the example that you have to keep trying, even if it’s tough, you gotta keep going, you can’t stop.”

Rachell Sanchez-Smith is a senior, double-majoring in journalism and political science, from the University of Arkansas. She is currently a Dow Jones News Fund data intern at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and normally is a radio producer/reporter for the NPR-Affiliate KUAF. She reports mainly on health, labor, human rights, and government. Reach her at rs069 [at] uark [dot] edu and on X @Rachell_ss09.

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