An Interview with Mr. Vasken Kaltakjian, Chairman of the Baton Rouge, LA, mission parish
The Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) has spoken at length with Vasken Kaltakjian, chairman of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, mission parish, who offered the following information about how the local Armenian community has been affected by Hurricane Katrina.
NO LOSS OF LIFE, SIGNIFICANT LOSS OF LIVELIHOOD
First and most importantly, there has been no loss of life among the local Armenian families. There has been a substantial loss of property due to wind, rain, and flooding. And the Armenians who run businesses in New Orleans expect that those businesses are lost or in ruins–which obviously may leave the greatest long term consequence for community members.
Armenian residents of New Orleans itself, and its suburbs Kenner and Metarree, have been evacuated; their properties remain flooded. In general, people who left New Orleans did so with very little in the form of personal property, cash, or clothing, since they expected the crisis would endure for only a matter of days. Armenians in La Place were not affected by the flood, but their houses did suffer significant wind and rain damage. Electrical power is now operating in La Place, and displaced families have begun congregating there.
HOUSING DISPLACED FAMILIES
Baton Rouge and La Place are the two main locales where displaced Armenian families have been domiciled. Mr. Kaltakjian attests that conditions in Baton Rouge are relatively “normal,” given the circumstances elsewhere in the state; but the resources of the area are strained by the influx of refugees from the disaster zone. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, the Armenian residents of Baton Rouge hosted four Armenian families–two of which have already moved on to stay with relatives in La Place. Other families have been notified and welcomed to come to Baton Rouge.
Mr. Kaltakjian has driven to La Place, LA, where four Armenian families permanently reside. These four households are currently housing five additional Armenian families, which have escaped from hurricane-ravaged areas. With phone service out, it had been difficult to get information on the five displaced families. Mr. Kaltakjian visited with the families, confirmed that they were accounted for, and tried to assess their situation with regard to relief needs.
Several Armenian families remain incommunicado; Mr. Kaltakjian is aware that they have left the disaster area, but he has not been able to confirm their current whereabouts. He expects to receive this information as soon as normal phone service resumes.
BRIEF RETURNS HOME TO INSPECT DAMAGE
Earlier in the week, authorities designated a 12-hour window to allow every home-owner in New Orleans to return temporarily to their homes, inspect damage, and take pictures to submit insurance claims. Only a few of the affected Armenian families were able to enter the city, however.
For those who have been able to return to their homes, many report that everything is flooded, and stench is already oppressive. Moreover, people are worried that all the rancid standing water will propagate and spread disease. Today Mr. Kaltakjian plans to bring a generator and gasoline to one family, whose house now stands in two and a-half feet of water, so they can start the long process of cleaning up.
As far as a permanent return, no one knows exactly when this will be able to occur; the authorities have stipulated the anywhere from two to six weeks may elapse before people are allowed to return home. In any event, currently there is no electric or water service in the disaster area.
LOCAL CHURCH REACHING OUT TO MEMBERS
The Baton Rouge mission parish owns a church facility of 4,000 square feet; adjacent to it is a 1,500 square-foot reception hall, which seats about 100 people. The parish has notified displaced Armenian families that they are welcome to stay in the facility, but none has as yet taken up that offer; for now, they have preferred to stay in the private homes of Armenians unaffected by the disaster. However, several families presently staying in Texas may take up temporary residence in the church building when they return to Louisiana.
At the behest of the Diocesan Center, Mr. Kaltakjian has made a list of all the Armenian families in the areas: about 70 people in total–of whom 27 are children–comprising 23 families. According to Mr. Kaltakjian, the immediate need for area Armenians is to acquire some basic items to help them get by day-to-day. Many have no income for the foreseeable future, and are cash-poor after 11 days of displacement from their homes.
A PLEA TO FELLOW ARMENIAN AMERICANS
Asked what message he’d like to convey to fellow Armenian Americans, Mr. Kaltakjian remarked that it’s a hard time in his state, and everyone affected deserves help. But please, he asked, remember your Armenian brothers and sisters in Louisiana. He fears that the community is insufficiently organized to aggressively pursue and secure immediate aid from relief agencies, and he appeals to America’s other Armenian communities for assistance.
He explained that contributions of clothing and canned goods would not be helpful in the present circumstances. Instead, the community would be best benefited by monetary donations, or by contributions of gift cards to retailers like Wal-Mart or K-Mart, which will allow the displaced Armenians to purchase clothing and other goods for themselves, give them something to do, and generally boost morale in depressing situation.
At the directive of Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate, the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America has arranged for special collections to be held at all Diocesan parishes on successive Sundays: September 11 and 18. Half of the collected donations will go toward the general relief effort for Hurricane Katrina victims (to be distributed through Church World Service, the humanitarian aid arm of the National Council of Churches).
The other half will go directly to the Baton Rouge parish, whose leaders will distribute the relief aid to affected Armenians according to their need.
The most efficient way to contribute is through the Diocesan website, www.armenianchurch.net, where you can click on the “Donate” link and make a credit-card donation on our secure server. Individuals and parishes can also send checks via mail to the Diocesan headquarters in New York (please write “Hurricane Katrina Relief” in the memo).
ARMENIANS IN LOUISIANA
The Armenian community of Baton Rouge, LA, is about 30 years old. When Mr. Kaltakjian first came to Baton Rouge in 1977, he estimates that about a third of the present community was already resident there. Most of the residents (then and now) hail originally from Lebanon; some come from Syria; and there are families from Egypt and Armenia itself. Living in a hurricane zone, the community has seen extreme atmospheric conditions, as well as flooding, in the past; but certainly nothing like the present crisis.