Interpreting for Hurricane Matthew to Avoid Repeating Hurricane Andrew’s Deaf Community Disaster

When it was over sea, Hurricane Matthew was a Category 5 hurricane, with the potential to do as much damage as the Category 5 Hurricane Andrew that hit Florida in 1992 with 165 mph winds–and needlessly took Deaf lives.

Picture of a swirling hurricane in the ocean heading toward Florida.
Hurricane Andrew before it took an unexpected turn and struck South Florida. Only one TV station agreed to have an interpreter inform the Deaf Community of the unexpected change–a difference that may have cost Deaf lives. photo credit: Key West Wedding Photography Remembering Hurricane Andrew – 1992 via photopin (license)

Andrew took 65 people’s lives and warnings from local news stations warned that Hurricane Matthew was as serious a threat to the Eastern U.S. coastline.

For the Florida Deaf community, reporting and interpreting about Hurricane Matthew was a time for news stations to redeem themselves and not fail them as they had during Hurricane Andrew, when the Deaf community relied on reports from only one TV station that would accept and interpreter–and no captions at all.

For Hurricane Matthew, not only did news stations use interpreters for Hurricane news along the East Coast, many used Certified Deaf Interpreters too, bringing praise and surprise.

Hurricane Matthew–A Big Difference

Hurricane over the ocean near Florida.
Hurricane Matthew over the Bahamas. Wikipedia reported the hurricane caused 1,027 fatalities. This time, the media took a better approach at informing the Deaf community. photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery Hurricane Matthew pass over the Bahamas. via photopin (license)

In 2016, with Hurricane Matthew, things started differently than they did during Hurricane Andrew.

For Hurricane Matthew, the Federal Communications Commission was available 24 hours a day, assisting with emergency communication providers.

The State reports that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley set the stage for public officials sharing communications with the Deaf Community, by providing a nationally Certified Deaf Interpreter, Jason Hurdich.

One viewer posted, “The sign language interpreter is the best part of Nikki Haley’s press conference. His facial expressions are 🔥🔥🔥.”

Channel 10 of the Miami area, once again a champion for Deaf communications during hurricanes, broadcasted interpreted news, this time with Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez. A graphic artist found the sign language interpreter so fascinating that she shared his video on her website.

Gym with hundreds of people laying on the floor in sleeping bags.
This U.S. Navy image shows preparation in a shelter in Cuba before Hurricane Matthew hit the island. Without proper communication, Deaf community members wouldn’t have known the shelter was available. photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery Service members attached to Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay take shelter inside Denich Gym before Hurricane Matthew hits Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. via photopin (license)

On their Facebook page, Pasco County Schools of Land O’ Lakes, Florida, provided a sign language interpreter, and added Hurricane Matthew emergency communications in Spanish.

The Broward County Emergency Operations Center of South Florida used a Deaf interpreter, with a hearing interpreter signing for him.

The Miami Herald reported that the Deaf interpreter, because American Sign Language is his native language, added more meaning for audience members who are Deaf.

“I process it and put it into an art form or language that is clear to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community,” interpreter Andrew Altmann said. “It’s like a puzzle and I have to put all the pieces together and present it to our community.”

The mayor’s Facebook Fan Kim Black said, “Marty, thank you for publicly supporting the interpreter! You always go above & beyond to support those who work behind the scenes. The Deaf and Hard of Hearing community is fortunate to have leaders like you. You’re a very special person. Stay safe through the storm.

West Palm Beach, Florida’s WPTV, introduced their interpreter on the channel’s website, saying she would interpret for their viewers who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.

There was a time though, that the Deaf community fended for itself with no information–and Deaf people died.

Hurricane Andrew: a Deaf Catastrophe

In 1992, before Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida, no one was certain if the storm would strike South Florida. To make matters worse, there had been a few hurricane scares earlier that year and nothing had happened.

According to “Lessons from Hurricane Andrew” by Rick Eyerdam, in the 1990’s, news stations used a “crawler,” which provided a written message at the bottom of the screen to inform people with deafness or hearing loss what was happening and what to do when closed captioning and interpreters weren’t signing.

According to the a Deaf services agency representing 30,000 clients then, when the news stations changed the Hurricane Watch to a Hurricane Warning, they stopped using a crawler.

Female news broadcaster with image of Hurricane Matthew in the background.
As pictured, this news broadcast wouldn’t make any sense to the Deaf community. No interpreter for those who use ASL. No captions for those who are Hard of Hearing. The Deaf and Hard of Hearing community needs visual communication. photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video NASA’s 3D view shows Hurricane Matthew’s intensity via photopin (license)

There were no captions, no crawler, no interpreters.

The equivalent for a hearing person is a TV that is turned off and no radio communications. Nothing.

The South Florida Deaf community had no idea the hurricane now had the highest probability of striking the area where they lived.

When the Hurricane Andrew Warnings were issued to the hearing population, most people went to the stores to buy food and water.

During hurricanes, water supplies can be contaminated, so the stores sold out. Home Depot ran out of generators, since many feared the 90+ degree heat with no air conditioning or power. Stores ran out of wood panels and duct tape to cover windows and keep them from shattering inside their homes.

Everyone went except the Deaf community, which didn’t know because local news stations, according to Tyrone Kennedy, stopped using the crawler to provide words at the bottom of the screen, because emergency messages were long and difficult to reduce to writing.

“Once it changed from the watch to warning, we lost it all. The deaf population had no knowledge of what was going on. They missed out completely,” Kennedy said.

When the Hurricane Warning was issued, Kennedy and Deaf Services called the National Hurricane Center to offer interpreters for hurricane announcements.

He never got called back.

The television stations refused interpreters. Finally, one television station, Channel 10, agreed to have an interpreter on the news.

“By the time those people who would have relied on this information, if it came sooner, found (the station and got the information) by then it was too late. The stores were all empty. There were no supplies left,” Kennedy said.

They also didn’t have enough time to properly evacuate to a Florida city higher north.

After the storm, they couldn’t contact people who were Deaf by phone, since TTYs needed electricity. Fortunately, they forwarded all calls to one apartment with electricity and sent out volunteers with replacement batteries for their TTYs.

After Hurricane Andrew, according to the report, “the deaf community has discussed the effectiveness of closed captioning in the emergency environment and is now recommended all messages be sent in open captioning…”

According to “Deaf People and Hurricanes,” by Elizabeth Sadler, several Deaf Floridians died during Hurricane Andrew.

While it’s too late for those who lost their lives during Hurricane Andrew, at least the Deaf Community received greater emergency communications and acceptance, far beyond anything they dreamed of long ago in 1992.

Learn Sign Language for Hurricane

Broward County’s emergency interpreter, Andrew Altmann, demonstrates how to sign “hurricane.”




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