Vehicles stranded by high water on the Major Deegan Expressway...

Vehicles stranded by high water on the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx after Hurricane Ida in September. Credit: AP/Craig Ruttle

New York State Attorney General Letitia James has called for the National Weather Service to issue severe weather alerts in a range of languages, not just Spanish and English.

A news release Tuesday from James' office cited the drowning deaths of 18 New Yorkers after flash flooding caused by remnants of Hurricane Ida last September. Newsday reported at the time that the weather service had warned about Ida for days and sent out multiple overnight alerts. But those who died — mostly immigrants from Trinidad, Nepal and China living in Queens and Brooklyn — may not have been able to understand them, according to the release.

"Language should never be a barrier to critical information that could save lives," James said.

The release followed a letter James sent Feb. 23 to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Acting Director of the National Weather Service Mary C. Erickson.

Representatives for those agencies did not comment.

Ida struck more than seven years after the weather service's own assessments recommended expanded risk communication for non-English speakers, James wrote, but storm warnings were not delivered in languages commonly spoken in New York City neighborhoods hit hard by the storm.

At a minimum, she wrote, in New York City, warnings should be delivered in traditional and simplified Chinese, Russian, French Creole, Bengali, Korean and Spanish.

The letter did not address Long Island. But in 2019, according to the Census, 24,732 Nassau households and 15,543 Suffolk households were "limited English speaking," with family members 14 and older having at least some difficulty with English. Spanish was the most common language for those households, but Indo-European languages, Asian languages and others were also spoken.

In the statement released Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens), said, "Hurricane Ida devastated the East Coast, the state of New York, and the Queens community … Unfortunately, the severe weather alerts were not accessible in languages other than English and Spanish, leaving many in my district and in our city unaware of the urgency of the flash flooding. We have seen these changes in other areas in New York City in the past, but it is sad that a loss of life is what it takes in order for key weather service updates to be available to non-English speaking New York City communities."

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