Rosenblum: Outreach by two media pros helps Hmong weather storms

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2013 - 1:47 PM

Fingertips blackened by frostbite. Cars buried in snow up to their windows. Tornadoes swirling at a frenzied 120 miles per hour. Temperatures rising to 100-plus degrees.

A multimedia presentation Tuesday offered the cold, hard fact that Minnesota has some of the world's greatest weather extremes. And it was potentially lifesaving news to those in attendance, who sat in rapt attention.

KSTP news anchor Joy Lim Nakrin and KSTP meteorologist Jonathan Yuhas delivered the afternoon presentation to about 40 members of the Hmong community at the Lao Family Community Center in St. Paul. Many are new arrivals understandably ill-prepared for our capricious climate.

With the assistance of a Hmong interpreter, Yuhas used slides and video footage to explain windchill and the heat index, how to be safe in a tornado and why it's really dumb to drive a car over a freshly frozen lake or river.

The outreach is largely the vision of Nakrin, newly named vice president of the Asian American Journalists Association-Minnesota. Nakrin, whose mother is Chinese, is sensitive to potential cultural and language barriers.

"Coming from an immigrant family myself, I'm always heartbroken to hear how the challenges of finding one's way in a new country can be harmful or potentially deadly."

She recalled a tornado in June 2011 in Springfield, Mass., that killed three people and injured dozens of others in a largely Latino community.

"Many new immigrants do not understand critical warnings being broadcast on radio and television," she said.

Yuhas, formerly a reserve police officer, has forecast weather for 20 years. He also trains local emergency responders on severe weather.

He and Nakrin decided to focus first on the Hmong community, the state's largest Asian group by far. More than 66,000 Hmong live in Minnesota, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

"You'll know more about the weather than people who have lived here 30 years," Yuhas told those in attendance. He played a tornado siren and told them the best places to seek shelter. He showed them a video clip of cars dangerously driving over washed-out roads, and listed items that should be in every Minnesotan's winter survival kit -- blanket, plastic cup to scoop up snow to drink, flashlight, ice scraper and shovel.

He taught them what to do if someone falls through the ice ("call 911, throw a branch or rope, get medical help immediately") and how to deal with frostbite.

"Can you build a fire to warm them?" asked an attendee. Yes, Yuhas answered, "but make sure the person is warmed slowly. And get medical help as soon as possible."

Community leaders seemed grateful for the information and the attention. Mitch Lee filmed the event for Hmong TV. Mao Thao, a health educator with the St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health Department, represented ECHO Minnesota (www.echominnesota.org) , a nonprofit that produces public service announcements and TV programs for members of many immigrant groups.

"We in the Hmong community need this," said ChuPheng Lee, president of the Lao Family Community Board.

"I worry most that they don't know how severely and quickly the weather can change. They'll say, 'My car would never break down.' I want the community to know that in Minnesota, you have to prepare for that."

The agenda wasn't limited to the woes of winter. Despite coming from a hot Southeast Asian climate, many immigrants still do not know how to take care of themselves during a Minnesota summer.

Every July 4, Lee said, a few members of his community dress too warmly at an annual sporting event and pass out from the heat.

Nakrin and Yuhas, partners in their personal lives, too, have plans to expand the educational outreach to other immigrant groups. The next weather session for the Hmong community is scheduled for Feb. 26, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. (www.laofamily.org).

With the help of Lao Family Community youth director Chung Lee, they hope to engage more young people -- often the most reluctant to put on a coat -- to instill in their peers healthy respect for Minnesota winters.

Yuhas also wants to train Hmong "storm spotters" who can report up-to-the-minute weather changes to the National Weather Service and become essential lines of safety for their families.

"You could get a dream list of storm-spotters at every mile."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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