St. Hagop Armenian Church in the St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay area of Florida experienced little damage (Photo credit: Florida Armenians Tampa Reporter Suren Oganessian)

Florida Armenians Shaken but Unharmed after Hurricane

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — After ravaging the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma passed through Florida Sunday, September 11 and Monday, September 12. It then continued through the Southeast. It landed as a Category 4 hurricane with 130 miles per hour winds and storm surges of 10 feet.

The death toll in the United States was 12 by Tuesday afternoon, including seven fatalities in Florida, while more than 5 million people in Florida remain without electricity. Fortunately, Florida Armenians seem to have survived the storm without serious damage or any casualties.

St. Hagop Armenian Church in the St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay area of Florida experienced little damage (Photo credit: Florida Armenians Tampa Reporter Suren Oganessian)

There were 15,856 Armenians living in Florida in 2010, according to the US Census Bureau. They are served by four churches, all affiliated with the Eastern Diocese: St. David Armenian Apostolic Church (Boca Raton), St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church (Hollywood), St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church (Pinellas Park) and St. Haroutiun Armenian Apostolic Church (Orlando). There are also several mission parishes.

Around 10,000 of the Floridian Armenians live in Southern Florida, and 6,000 in the Tampa and St. Petersburg area, according to Floridian Taniel Koushakjian. Koushakjian, editor-in-chief of the Florida Armenians website, lives with his family in Boca Raton, but has taken refuge in the Hyatt Hotel in West Palm Beach.

Damage in Deerfield Beach (Photo: Arsine Kaloustian, Florida Armenians Associate Editor)

Fr. Hovnan Demirjian of St. Hagop, in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, stated that the church and the area it serves was not too badly affected. It lost some shingles, but there was no flooding or great damage. A good portion of his parishioners left, going out of state or to other parts of Florida. The people remaining in state who lived on the coast either went to neighbors or friends, and others stayed at home if they were not in an urgent evacuation zone.

The silver lining: new baby Floridian Harout Michael Sarkisian

Demirjian said, “No one was affected with more than downed trees in his yard, and there was no severe damage.” Some Armenians also have taken refuge in public shelters in various parts of the state.

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There is no news from the small communities in Naples, which was in the middle of the storm, and Jacksonville, which experienced flooding, so far but Koushakjian and Demirjian confirmed that the other communities appear to be in relatively good shape. Curfews were lifted in Miami on September 12. People who evacuated now are starting to return to their homes, and others who stayed begin their repairs, but it will take a long time for Florida’s infrastructure to be fully repaired and as long as several weeks for electricity to be restored everywhere.

There are gas shortages in much of the state.

Damage in Deerfield Beach (Photo: Arsine Kaloustian, Florida Armenians Associate Editor)

Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian on September 11 confirmed the general assessment in a statement circulated in The Armenian Church Leader: “Today, Monday, I have been in contact with pastors and parish leaders in the state, and I am happy to convey the news that their respective communities seem to have weathered the worst of the storm. Florida pastors and parish council chairs were in frequent contact with parishioners, and report that people are physically well and bearing up under the extreme conditions of the past few days. The state is still experiencing high-velocity winds at this writing, and travel in many areas is restricted, so the extent of material damage—including the state of church facilities—is yet to be completely assessed. Many homes have no power, and stores are closed and lack provisions; but again, from all accounts our people are safe.”

Fortunately, federal and state resources already had begun to be set in place even before the height of the storm, though federal funding may still be an issue. Koushakjian noted that many people are coming from other states to aid in the recovery. The lesson for many, learned through hard experience, is to prepare ahead of time. Steps were also taken by the state government after Hurricane Wilma in 2005: every gas station is now required by law to have a backup generator so that at least one pump will work. High rises should also have backup sources of electricity, Koushakjian observed.

There is a little bit of good news that Koushakjian related. Gevork and Agunik Sarkisian had a baby boy on September 7 in Boca Raton, right before the storm’s arrival. All three had to stay in the hospital, West Boca Medical Center, through the storm, but went home on September 12. Baby Harout Michael Sarkisian is now the newest addition to the Florida-Armenian community.

For more information on Florida Armenians visit https://www.facebook.com/flarmenians/

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