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City information online in Spanish

In time for the storm season, the Web site informs Tampa's Hispanics about emergencies and city services in general.

Saundra Amrhein
July 7, 2005
St. Petersburg Times

TAMPA - Just in time for the next round of hurricanes, the city has launched a version of its Web site in Spanish, hoping to reach a growing number of Hispanic residents who called last year in a panic as one storm after another bore down on Florida.

The Web site, formally unveiled Wednesday, can be found at www.tampagov.net by clicking on "en Espanol." 

The Spanish Web pages, a condensed version of the city Web site, was developed in-house by the city's information technology department and Hispanic neighborhood liaison, Lorena Rivas, who works in the Neighborhood and Community Relations office.

They were aided by translators at Tampa International Interpreters, the city said.

The site, which provides Spanish-speaking visitors with information on city departments, services and public safety, was in the works for more than a year as Neighborhood and Community Relations officials attempted to reach out to the city's booming Hispanic population, said office director Shannon Edge.

But last year's spate of hurricanes turned up the heat.

"With every additional storm, our phones were ringing off the hook," Edge said. "We found we had a lot of Spanish-speaking people that were panicked."

Last year, the city printed fliers in Spanish with information on where to dump storm debris, obtain sandbags or call emergency operations numbers. The fliers were distributed in neighborhoods and among community groups, she said.

Also, city employees who speak Spanish did their best to juggle the torrent of phone calls from Spanish speakers, roughly a quarter of all calls pouring into city lines, she said.

This year will be different, she predicted.

Rivas was hired in November as the Hispanic liaison to handle many of those calls, and word was sent out through media and community groups about the new Web page.

"We feel absolutely more prepared this year as an emergency operation as well as providing city services," Edge said. "We want to break down that barrier and let them know we're here to help."

Even in calmer moments, Rivas is on board to steer Spanish-speaking residents through city agencies. She recently developed a list of Spanish-speaking contacts.

The number to Rivas is (813) 274-7416.

The city wasn't too far behind the Hillsborough County Commission's Web site in Spanish, though the site, developed last year, is still mired in problems because the county uses computerized translations that sometimes don't make sense, said Sandra Charbonier, the county's interim director of communications.

Independently, the county tax collector and county supervisor of elections offices have translated their sites into Spanish.

Tony Morejon, the county's Hispanic liaison, is not relying on the Internet alone. Last year, he says, his office was bombarded with panicked callers from Town 'N Country to Tampa to southern Hillsborough.

So this year, he helped plan a hurricane preparedness conference in May for about 350 Spanish speakers in Hillsborough County. He has run a program on county television three times a week in Spanish since early June on disaster plans. And later this month, he'll visit Hispanics living in rural areas of the county, such as Wimauma, to make sure they're ready.

For the county, Spanish speakers answer questions at 272-5900.

Between 2000 and 2003, Hillsborough's Hispanic population jumped from 182,523 to 216,793, or about 19 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The county has the state's third-largest Hispanic population behind Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service in Tampa has also developed a Web page in Spanish: http://www.srh.noaa.gov /tbw/spa_new2.shtml

"Information," says Morejon, "saves lives."