The Brownsville office of the National Weather Service will soon begin transmitting emergency alerts in Spanish to provide many Rio Grande Valley households the early warnings necessary to save lives.
The regional system will transmit severe weather warnings and other emergency alerts in both English and Spanish. Once the plan is implemented this fall, the Valley will join El Paso, Miami and San Diego as areas that broadcast the hazard warnings in Spanish.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., who worked with officials at the Texas Department of Emergency Management to acquire a grant, said South Texas is a part of the country most in need of a Spanish language alert system.
“Make no mistake, this system will save lives. We need everybody to get on board with this,” Lucio said in a statement. “Businesses who agree to step up and help should be recognized for their service to the community.”
Funded by the federal hazard mitigation grant program, the Spanish language public safety warning system will translate the National Weather Service’s existing alerts and broadcast them in Spanish across Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties. Although about 80 percent of Valley residents speak Spanish as their first language at home, the National Weather Service has never had the equipment to broadcast Spanish language alerts for hurricanes, floods and other weather-related events.
A $120,000 grant, coupled with a $30,000 local match, will cover the cost of the Spanish translation software that converts the alert system’s computerized voice into Spanish, said Ken Jones, the executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, the coalition of local governments that applied for the grant. It will also pay to install transmitters, antennas and other hardware at tower sites in Pharr and Harlingen.
The tower sites, likely provided at no cost by the city of Pharr and Cameron County, will have coverage areas of about 30 to 35 miles. Maintenance and other recurring operating costs will be covered by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, the chamber of commerce that represents businesses across the region.
Steve Drillette, the meteorologist in charge at the NWS-Brownsville office, said the Spanish language alerts are a “vital need” in Deep South Texas but one his office’s budget couldn’t cover on its own.
Once the system is operational, Valley residents who own a weather radio – available for about $40 – can program its local weather alerts for either English or Spanish. But the Valley’s radio and television stations that are part of the Emergency Alert System also will have the option to choose the feed from the Spanish transmitter.
In addition to weather alerts, emergency management officials use the system to broadcast warnings and post-event information for natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, manmade events, such as chemical releases or oil spills, and public safety notices, such as AMBER alerts or 911 telephone outages.
“Our job is to help protect life and property,” Drillette said. “This is really critical to do that with our Spanish-speaking population.”