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Florida Armenians Hurricane Irma Special Report

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By Editorial Staff

It was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, a massive Category 5 hurricane with 180+mph sustained winds. Unlike most storms, Irma maintained it’s high intensity for over 70 hours before making landfall in the Caribbean. Days later it would touchdown in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm with 130mph winds.

Hurricane Irma was also the largest storm in size – approximately 350 miles wide – about double the size of Hurricane Andrew which rocked South Florida in 1992. Irma was so large that its effects could be felt in Havana and in Orlando–at the same time.

For me and Arsine, this was not our first major hurricane. We’ve been in South Florida (Palm Beach County) since the early 80’s, and have lived through Hurricanes Andrew (1992), Charley (2004), Ivan (2004), Jeanne (2004), Wilma (2005), and now Irma (2017). Speak to anyone who lived here at the time and they will tell you, “I will never forget Andrew,” which registered over 200mph gusts before knocking out the tower at Miami International Airport. I was ten years old at the time. Around 2:00am, my parents woke me up and we all went into our safe room (the inner most room of the house that doesn’t have windows), and at one point we thought our roof might blow right off. But we survived Andrew, and we rebuilt our home and our lives. Then came 2004, when 3 major hurricanes struck South Florida in 14 days time. The back to back to back storms left us paralyzed. Then came Wilma, the worse storm since Andrew. It was the first time I had ever been inside the eye of a hurricane, and what a feeling it was. The powerful force of Mother Nature is hard to describe when you are in the middle of a storm that uproots trees, tears off roofs, flattens buildings, and floods entire neighborhoods. With Wilma, Taniel’s family lost power for 12 days in Boca Raton. Arsine’s family lost power and running water for 14 days in Coconut Creek.

But this year, things would be different. Floridians have learned a lot in the last 25 years. We’ve learned how to build stronger homes, regularly updating our building code. Our utility companies have adopted new technologies, from stronger transmission lines to the use of drones to asses infrastructure damage and appropriating resources to specific areas in a timely fashion. Our government – city, county, state, and federal – has become highly coordinated in the preparation, monitoring, response, and recovery effort. Our national weather service has added new satellites to track and assess the intensity, direction, and timeline of impact of the tropical systems. Never before have I witnessed Floridians be as prepared as we were for Irma.

In the days leading up, I made about a dozen trips to Publix, Target, and hardware stores. We had supplies to last us a month – bottled water, batteries, flashlights, candles, lighters, gasoline, canned foods, cell phone battery chargers – knowing that if Irma hit South Florida as was originally projected, the effects would be worse than Wilma in 2005. But we got lucky here in South Florida. Our friends in the Keys, Naples, and Marco Island were not as fortunate.

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Five days prior to Irma’s landfall in the U.S., Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, preparing federal personnel and resources to be in place and at the ready. Toll roads were opened. 1,000 national guard troops were activated. About 30,000 first responders, disaster clean up, and utility crews were called into the state in advance of the storm.

Arsine and I took the family to the Hyatt Place hotel in downtown West Palm Beach. At about 11:00pm on Saturday night, as tropical storm force winds began, a giant bus parked out front and out came 25 utility workers who had been bused in from Detroit, Michigan. Then about 30 minutes later, another bus pulled up and 25 more workers from Aspen, Colorado got out and checked into the hotel. The Detroit crew were utility and public works professionals ready to assist FPL and local officials in the recovery, repair, and clean up. The Aspen crew was with ASPLUNDH, a tree removal company that would remove the downed trees necessary for the utility workers to get in and repair the power lines. Arsine and I were able to meet and talk with the first responders. They were here, on the ground before the storm, and ready to get out there and help rebuild as soon as possible. Sure enough, they weren’t at breakfast on Monday morning. They had been sent to various parts of the state before the sun had even rose.

When the storm had passed, over half of the state’s population was without power – about 11 million people. As I write this, I still don’t have power in my home, and the road to the island of Palm Beach, where Arsine works, is closed to everyone except residents. Over 100,000 people were stuck in the 400 evacuation shelters scattered across the state. Schools have been closed all week. Curfews are still in effect in some counties, include Palm Beach County where I live. Road U.S. 1 in the Keys is shutdown and impassable, and the entire Monroe County is closed for re-entry. Entire communities have been cut off and thousands of people can’t even return to their homes. Nearly 30 people in Florida lost their lives due to Irma, including 8 seniors who died inside a nursing home in Hollywood, FL that had lost power. But we will remember them, we will learn how to protect life better next time, we will improve our technology, and we will rebuild, like we always do.

A Little Sunshine Among the Storm

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Meet Harout Michael Sarkisian, the newest member of the Florida Armenian community. He was born on Thursday, September 7th, 2 days before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida. Together with mom Agunik and dad George, the Sarkisian family camped out at West Boca Medical Center in Boca Raton, FL during Hurricane Irma. Everything turned out OK, and on Monday, after the storm passed, they went home together as a family.

Updates on the Florida Armenian Community from Across the State

Church-HurricaneFortunately, members of the Armenian community of Florida did not suffer any injuries or fatalities due to Hurricane Irma. However, after the storm, several Armenian families were stuck without power. Some had evacuated and returned to flood damage at home. Our Armenian Churches fared well overall, but there was some damage at St. Mary Armenian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, and Soorp Haroutiun Armenian Church in Orlando. Below is a detailed roundup from across the state.

St. Petersburg/Tampa, FL

Florida Armenians St. Petersburg Reporter Suren Oganessian Reports:

The hurricane began with a light breeze Saturday evening; during the days leading up to it I was under the impression it would come all at once, but the winds and rain just gradually became more powerful throughout the day. By nightfall on Sunday, the winds were howling. My power went off and on all evening, until around 10 o’clock when it went out for good, and as of now is still out. I was fortunate to be on high ground, away from the storm surge. It was my first hurricane since I moved to Florida from California in early 2015.

According to Oganessian, St. Hagop Armenian Church weathered the storm well with only some downed trees and branches.

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Hollywood/Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Rev. Fr. Vartan Joulfayan, Pastor of St. Mary Armenian Church in Hollywood/Ft. Lauderdale, FL reports:

Thank God my family is well. We lost power from Sunday morning and got it back on Monday late evening. Our church and hall buildings are standing. There are many trees down on the church property and the church street, NW 100 Ave., was flooded. Unfortunately, water from the altar area ceiling had dripped down on the altar floor causing the carpets to get soaked.

During the hurricane I contacted as many parishioners as possible to check on them. Many families in Miami, North Miami, Coral Gables, Ft. Lauderdale and other areas also lost power. Some parishioners houses were also flooded, and they were obligated to spend Monday night at a friends house.

Fr. Vartan also told FLArmenians.com that he is asking members of the Florida Armenian community to come to St. Mary Armenian Church on Saturday, September 16 from 10:00am to 2:00 pm to do post-hurricane clean up around the church. “There are many trees and branches down that need to be cut into smaller pieces and moved to the dumpster,” he said. “I know you have been busy cleaning and taking care of your own houses, but we also need to take care of our spiritual house.” If you are available, please contact Fr. Vartan at 954-296-1406 and bring your work gloves, chainsaw, machetes, and lawn rakes. Lunch will be provided.

Boca Raton & West Palm Beach, FL

Florida Armenians Editor, Taniel Koushakjian, Associate Editor Arsine Kaloustian, and Rev. Fr. Paren Galstyan, Pastor of St. David Armenian Church, report:

Parishioners of St. David Armenian Church in Boca Raton are safe and our church did not suffer any major damage. Fr. Paren informed FLArmenians.com that the Church has regained power and the A/C is running. St. David is open for anyone who needs shelter, A/C, kitchen and gas grill/bbq to cook food, WiFi/Internet. For assistance please call Fr. Paren at 847-732-7183.

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Orlando, FL

Rev. Fr. Armash Bagdasarian, Pastor of Soorp Haroutiun Armenian Church reports:

Thank God, everyone in our community is OK. We received news that many have lost power and have leaks; but other than that thank God everyone is OK and no serious damages to report. Yesterday, I was able to go check the Church after the 6 pm curfew was lifted. There is no damage thank God; just water leaking from the ceiling from various places.

Largo, FL

FLArmenians.com reader Armen Meliksetyan told us that he and his family were safe, and sent us these photos from Largo, just north of St. Petersburg:

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Tallahassee, FL

Florida Armenians Tallahassee Reporter Margaret Atayants reports:

Thank God the hurricane passed right by us. We were lucky. Tallahassee is doing well. Most of the city is back up on it’s feet and there is just some minor clean up that is being done right now. Our fence was broken when we came home from staying at my brothers house. All the other Armenians in our community here in Tallahassee did not report anything serious!

Naples, FL

Florida Armenians Naples Reporter Frank and Susan Avakian reports:

The hurricane barreled through late Sunday afternoon.  Our section of town was without electricity from Sunday to Tuesday afternoon.  Frank and I came through the hurricane in one piece – fortunately, our house and neighborhood were spared downed power lines, uprooted trees, flooding, roof damage, etc., but other parts of town look like a bomb went off.  (and try Florida in September with no air conditioning!)

There is still no phone service, landline or cell, and I just got the internet back!  But we are so thankful that we, our children and grandchildren are well.  This too shall pass!

Miami Beach, FL

Mark Samuelian, Candidate for Miami Beach City Commission visited the senior centers in Miami Beach on Thursday with sweet treats and asking the seniors their preparation plans for the storm. Later that afternoon, he volunteered with the city filling sandbags for residents and helping load the bags into their cars. Miami Beach had mandatory evacuations and many residents took shelter outside the city. Some areas of Miami Beach experienced flooding and many neighborhoods had downed trees, debris and downed power lines. Power is quickly being restored and residents were allowed back into the beach on Tuesday morning. Miami Beach still has a curfew in effect. The Samuelian team will be volunteering to help get the city back to normal.

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FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is on the ground aiding in recovery efforts by supporting shelters, delivering food and water, and distributing federal disaster relief funds. To find out if you qualify for FEMA assistance you can visit www.disasterassistance.gov, call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362), or download the free FEMA app here: https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app.

Take Action: Volunteer Florida

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If you’ve regained power, cleaned up around your home, and are back up and running, you’re lucky. But not everyone is. Florida Armenians encourages those who are able to help contact their church, family, and friends and give them a hand in the recovery. We also encourage you to help your community by signing up at VolunteerFlorida.org/Irma.

Volunteer Florida is the state’s lead agency for volunteers and donations before, during, and after disasters. Volunteer Florida mobilizes and deploys resources to assist those responding to and recovering from disasters. In response to Hurricane Irma, Volunteer Florida is mobilizing volunteers to staff our state’s shelters and other disaster relief organizations.

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Updated on Wednesday, September 20 at 3:07pm.

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North Florida Armenians Gather to Watch ‘The Promise’ in Jacksonville

By Margaret Atayants
FLArmenians Tallahassee Chair

On April 21, 2017, the Jacksonville Armenian community gathered together to watch the weekend premiere of the movie, ‘The Promise.’

Together with Elmira Grigoryan, Chairwoman of the Armenian Church of Jacksonville, we organized Armenians across northern Florida to assemble together and watch the movie in one theatre, which we secured for the 7:00pm showing. The theatre was packed!

When Mrs. Grigoryan first contacted me about getting everyone together, we were very concerned that we would not be able to pull it off due to the small number of Armenians in North Florida. However, to our surprise, not only did we fill up the theatre with our committed Armenians, but many non-Armenian friends arrived and supported us, too. People were even sitting on the steps!

The event turned out to be a big success for the small but growing Jacksonville Armenian community. Elmira and I would like to give special thanks to everyone who made this gathering possible.

The next day on Sunday, Rev. Fr. Tateos Abdalian blessed us with his presence by leading the Easter Badarak lead by our wonderful choir and our dedicated altar boys, Alex Shafiyev and Nicholas Yedigarov. Badarak was then followed by a big community dinner with homemade food from all the different Armenian backgrounds. We also celebrated the birthdays of members for the month of April. The afternoon concluded with Armenian children’s songs. After a full weekend of events, the love and warmth of everyone made me, and all those apart or new coming of the Jacksonville Armenian community, truly feel right at home.

From Tallahassee to Yerevan: My First Trip to Armenia

Margaret Atayants in traditional Armenian clothing. Photo credit: Photo Atelier Marashlyan.

Margaret Atayants in traditional Armenian clothing. Photo credit: Photo Atelier Marashlyan.

By Margaret Atayants
FLArmenians Tallahassee Contributor

It took me a while to sit down and write out all of the feelings and thoughts that I had gathered after my first trip to Armenia. I am blessed to be an Armenian that was born and raised in America, a country that allows me to have everything right at arms reach. Growing up, my parents never really talked about Armenia because they were born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan and the only thing that really connected them to Armenia was the blood that flowed within their veins. As I grew older, the more I began to feel what it meant to be Armenian. I started reading and learning more about my culture. I befriended Armenians who grew up in the homeland and other families who came from Western Armenia, descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. I read more; I watched more; I listened more; but never in my life did I imagine to see what I saw when I arrived in Mother Armenia.

I had been planning my trip for three years, not really knowing how it would all play out. I imagined arriving at the airport, falling to my knees, crying and kissing the ground that my ancestors built. Instead, I arrived at the airport and a spirit that was greater than me took over and held me up stronger than I have ever felt in my life. It was an uplifting emotional experience. I retrieved my bags and as I approached the exit the sliding doors opened, and I smelled the heavy air. It filled my lungs and fed my soul.

The ride from the airport was long and confusing. I thought that I would be riding into a city straight from the airport but I was riding through a ghetto of homes that were left unbuilt from after the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s amazing how after 24 years of independence some parts still look like it happened yesterday. When you arrive to Armenia, you’re stepping into the past. It’s a land that hasn’t been touched by the hands of modern men. Granted there are modernized buildings standing in Yerevan, but I never felt the air change.

I was blessed to travel from the northern edges of Armenia in Alaverdi, down to the south where we rode over the mountains to Tatev Monastery. I had the privilege to smell and feel Lake Sevan. It was cold but delightful because I could hear the sounds of the Armenian duduk in the wind as it blew through my hair.

An Armenian villager in Garni.

An Armenian villager in Garni.

I always knew that our people were hospitable and generous, kind with hearts and souls as wide as the ocean. But never did I imagine it to be so pure.

Margaret Atayants eating mulberries.

Margaret Atayants eating mulberries.

I will never forget the moment I was in Garni and we walked by a woman sitting down at her stand, selling homemade jam and molasses made from pomegranates; apricots that drip with juices that tasted as sweet as honey. As I bit into the apricot I looked up into the sky to thank God for these people who were filling the emptiness that has been in my soul for so long. As I looked away from the sky, my eyes slowly came down and stopped at the mulberry tree. As I child, I remember laying down a blanket and shaking the tree to collect the berries that I didn’t even understand at such a young age, why they tasted to good. Without thinking, I yelled out, “Tout!” (the Armenian word for mulberry), and the woman turned around and said to me, “Climb up my life, and pick the mulberries and eat them. This is my mulberry tree and I want to share with you.” So I did. I climbed up and as I was picking the berries off of the tree, they were melting into my hands, staining them black. Never in my life had I tasted something so delicious, something so sweet, something so full of life. I had my camera in one hand and the mulberries in the other as I was climbing back down the stairs from the tree. I didn’t know what to do with my dirty hand and this is the moment that I would never forget. The woman who’s tree I was eating from, saw that I was struggling, and told me to wait. She ran into her home to get a cup of water to wash my hands. Then a stranger grabbed my hand and washed it so gently that no matter how deep the stain it would be clean because this is what this woman had wished.

A stranger? They were no strangers. They are my family.

If Mother Armenia is calling you, go. Do not question her calls. She will pave the ground that you walk on. She will show you beauty that you cannot paint or write. She will pull your soul out of your body and with her majestic beauty and land show you what your own soul looks like. The whole country is filled with music and art, love and kindness, purity and faith, joy and sorrow. Go and understand why you love the way you love, why you cry the way you cry, why you care the way you care and why you breath the way you breath. Armenia changed my life like nothing else in this world ever had. Many people are poor; some people have nothing; some people are hungry; some people are waiting and praying, but they are the happiest to see you and love you and offer you all that they have.

Margaret Atayants looking towards Mount Ararat.

Margaret Atayants looking towards Mount Ararat.

Today, when I listen to the duduk, images flash of the family I never knew I had in Armenia. Wait for me, my brothers and sisters. I will be back very soon to give you all that I have and more. Armenia, you have changed me and I will forever fall to my knees and love you.