Do Hurricane Harvey survivors with limited English proficiency have meaningful access to the recovery process?

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released last Thursday. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public 14 days to comment. Every day until Feb. 1, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

Update, 1/29/18, 3: 35 p.m.: The GLO announced on its website that it will extend the public comment period until Feb. 13 at 5 p.m. because of “unexpected delays in translation services.” 


Seven days into the 14-day public comment period, the Texas General Land Office has yet to post a Spanish translation of the draft State of Texas Plan for Disaster Recovery.

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 2.45.00 PMThis is despite Texas officials stating in the English document that a Spanish translation would be available. To the left is page 53 of the State Action Plan that provides specific information about this.

The draft Action Plan GLO released last week states that the public would have 14 days to comment and a translation would be available soon. This week, when an immigrant advocacy nonprofit organization in South Texas requested the draft plan in Spanish, GLO officials said it was not ready yet. The GLO team then told the nonprofit advocates that the deadline would be extended, without providing a timeframe for when the Spanish translation would be ready and how long Spanish-speakers would have to comment.

There has still been no announcement on the GLO disaster recovery website of a deadline deadline extension at the time this blog is posted. See a screenshot of the website as of 5 p.m. today. So, to answer our headline’s question, as of right now, it is clear that not every person has meaningful access to the recovery process.

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Texas has previously recognized the importance of translating critical documents for residents who have limited English proficiency. In the statewide consolidated action plan, required for grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state’s housing and community affairs department details that a statewide analysis showed that three-fourths of its program participants who had limited English proficiency spoke Spanish. The amendment to this (non-disaster) action plan reads: “The State will make reasonable efforts to provide language assistance to ensure meaningful access to participation by non-English speaking persons.”

Additionally, the Civil Rights Act (and HUD guidance) requires that agencies and governments that receive federal financial assistance “have a responsibility to ensure meaningful access to programs and activities by [limited English proficient] persons.” There is a threshold of persons speaking a particular language that triggers the translation requirement, though. According to the guidance, HUD expects written translations of vital documents to be provided “for each eligible LEP language group that constitutes 5 percent or 1,000, whichever is less, of the population of persons eligible to be served or likely to be affected or encountered.”

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In the 49 counties declared disaster areas after Hurricane Harvey, there are more than 241,000 households who are not proficient in English. This is about nine percent of the population in the affected area. And nearly 200,000 of those households are Spanish-speaking while nearly 30,000 speak an Asian language. More than one in 10 households in Harris County, where 80 percent of the $57.8 million is allocated, are limited in their English proficiency. The vast majority of them speak Spanish.

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For reference, here are the languages spoken in Harris County households. Many of these households are likely fluent in English, too.

Keep in mind that not all households with limited English proficiency were impacted by Harvey. Still, these numbers likely mean that a great number of people who are not proficient in English lack access to the plans for recovery in their communities.

Providing an avenue for non-English speakers to participate in the design of disaster recovery initiatives is not an empty exercise. Few things will more profoundly affect the lives of disaster survivors as the ability to understand and participate in the details of how the federal funds will assist them to rebuild their homes and that protect their neighborhoods from future flooding.

This is neglect is unacceptable, and by now, the State of Texas should know better.

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