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The lack of translators is slowing flood relief in Lawrence

LAWRENCE -- Carmen Lopez, 69, does not know how to say ``help me" in English. The phrases ``flooded basement" and ``lost almost everything" are also absent from her vocabulary.

But there were no translators available when she showed up yesterday afternoon at the Lawrence Public Library looking for information on how to apply for state and federal disaster aid. Lopez stood silently inside the makeshift State Disaster Recovery Center as her 28-year-old daughter asked the questions. When an employee from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency handed Lopez a stack of informational pamphlets, she looked confused and passed them to her daughter.

In a city where nearly 70 percent of the population of 72,000 is Hispanic, city officials say language has become an obstacle in the flood recovery effort.

Some residents, like Lopez, can neither read nor speak English. City officials say they do not have enough bilingual staff members working in the recovery center and have spent the past week relying on a handful of exhausted volunteer translators. They are also waiting for Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to send them informational material in Spanish. So far, the only pamphlets they have are in English.

Since record rainfall flooded the city two weeks ago, leaving a thick layer of mold and forcing hundreds of families to evacuate their homes, state and city officials have worked to clean up the grime and find housing for displaced residents.

But communication barriers have proven to be quite a hurdle, said Michael R. Sweeney, director of the city's Office of Planning and Development and an organizer of the flood relief effort.

The American Red Cross and MEMA provided a limited number of Spanish-speaking rescue workers, Sweeney said. Half a dozen bilingual City Hall employees stepped in as volunteer translators, with some working 10-hour shifts each day, Sweeney said.

``People are getting fatigued," he said yesterday. ``Translating government material exactly is hard."

Multilingual employees from FEMA are expected to arrive this week, providing relief to volunteers in Lawrence. Residents can call FEMA's national hot line if they need to speak to a staff member in a language other than English, said Marty Bahamonde, an agency spokesman.

``We know Lawrence has a bilingual issue," he said yesterday in a telephone interview. ``It's not a challenge at all. . . . We are fully operational from a multilingual standpoint."

Yesterday, there were three bilingual translators on hand at the recovery center to translate for more than six MEMA employees. When Lopez walked in with her daughter, Ivdisse, all the translators were busy. ``It is a little frustrating," Ivdisse Lopez said as she glanced over the pamphlets. ``They should have this in Spanish, too."

Cristina Silva can be reached at

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