In 2018, Anchorage emerged largely unscathed from what could have been a devastating 7.1 earthquake. Following the event, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and other city officials noted that while strict seismic building codes and significant strides in emergency preparedness had paid off, a gap in communication between limited and non-English speaking communities and the city remained.
They realized that no single group had the capacity to prepare for or respond to emergencies on their own, and so effective coordination between city and state agencies, nonprofits and local leaders would be essential to reaching the large number of ethnic communities that reside in Anchorage. Mayor Berkowitz, First Lady Mara Kimmel, and key city staff have been working closely with community leaders to implement an innovative and inclusive solution.
As part of that, Sustainability Director Shaina Kilcoyne and Special Assistants to the Mayor Catherine Kemp, Ira Slomski-Pritz, and Shannon Kuhn used funding from the NLC Leadership in Community Resilience program to convene emergency management officials and community leaders from the Anchorage Health Literacy Collaborative’s Peer Leader Navigator (PLN) program.
Anchorage has the most diverse school district in the nation with over 100 languages spoken. As a designated refugee resettlement city and member of the Welcoming Cities project since 2014, Anchorage now has a foreign-born population of nearly 11%, hailing from locations as far and diverse as South Sudan, the Polynesian islands, Korea, Thailand, Venezuela and the Philippines. The city has reaped the benefits of this in-migration – in 2014, newcomers contributed an estimated $27 million in state and local taxes, and foreign-born entrepreneurs generated $37 million in business income.
Its linguistic and ethnic diversity is certainly one of the city’s top cultural and economic assets, yet language barriers can create challenges for cities’ health and emergency management departments. In contrast with cities that have two or three predominantly spoken languages, Anchorage is a city with many communities who speak a wide variety of languages. The city has already successfully translated critical emergency readiness information into 17 languages, but officials are determined to close the linguistic gap by establishing new and effective communications channels between their offices and local communities.
Emergency preparedness is particularly critical in Alaska, which, alongside frequent earthquakes and their accompanying risks (liquefaction and landslides), faces many climate-related hazards, including rapid warming (2.5 times faster than the lower 48 states), wildfires and smoke. And for many remote Alaska native villages, shrinking snow seasons, thawing permafrost and sea level rise are threatening their very existence.
Designed by the Anchorage Health Literacy Collaborative and coordinated by Linda Shepard, the Peer Leader Navigator program engages volunteer leaders (PLNs) from a variety of ethnic and linguistic communities.
Last fall, the city joined forces with Shepard to convene several PLNs for a training on the region’s climate and natural hazards, emergency preparedness, and tips on relaying this information to their communities. PLNs included community leaders who had immigrated from Polynesia, Jordan, Mexico, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Venezuela, Uganda and several other countries.
The PLNs acknowledged that for many newcomers to Anchorage, the 2018 earthquake was the worst day of their lives. Some described confusion over whether their children were safer at school or if they should risk hours in traffic and road closures to pick them up.
“This is Alaska – you need to be prepared,” said Marisol Vargas, the longest standing participant in the program.
Another PLN agreed. “We live in an environment that tries to kill us at least once a year!”
The PLNs were trained to leverage their reach with their respective linguistic communities to connect residents to resources and empower individuals to seek help when needed. They develop leadership skills and serve as trusted messengers between the city and its limited English-speaking communities.
Everyone agreed that the PLNs are a self-selected, dedicated group, but their fellow community members might not be as eager to discuss emergency preparedness.
Emergency Programs Manager Audrey Gray humorously described this hurdle as “eating an elephant – a long, but step-by-step process.” She admitted that for the PLNs, teaching other adults about preparedness could pose its challenges and suggests they ask residents to take one preparedness action per month.
Despite the challenges, Anchorage is setting the tone for other mid-sized cities to invest in inclusive emergency preparedness, and to value and leverage the networks and expertise of community leaders. The city is now exploring ways in which to expand and further fund this program.
About the Author: Anna Marandi is a senior associate on the Sustainability Team at the National League of Cities (NLC).