Remembering the 1988 Earthquake in Armenia and American Relief
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Then-Armenian Assembly Board Chairman Hirair Hovnanian leading a delegation bringing humanitarian relief to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake
WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the 30th Anniversary of the Spitak Earthquake, the Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly) remembers the thousands of lives lost and villages destroyed after a massive earthquake, registering 6.9 on the Richter Scale, struck northern Armenia without warning, affecting hundreds of towns and villages.
The Assembly recalls the tremendous outpouring of support and compassion from the American people and those abroad, as the emergency response of the U.S. Government was immediate and generous. With 80 percent of Gyumri – Armenia’s second largest city – destroyed, the U.S. government immediately sent approximately $10 million in aid to Armenia, and private U.S. organizations contributed over $40 million. The Assembly secured the first $5 million appropriation from U.S. Congress, which was followed by the second appropriation of Armenia relief assistance, when it seemed impossible that the United States would extend such assistance to a Soviet Republic.
1988 Earthquake aftermath
In addition to joining with other organizations in providing humanitarian assistance, the Assembly’s then-Board Chairman Hirair Hovnanian traveled to Armenia to assess the needs of the devastated region. On the basis of this assessment, the Assembly made the decision to build in Gyumri a factory complex to manufacture prefabricated housing for the earthquake victims. The factory is still in operation today, employing up to 70 people throughout the year, and has provided for over 47,000 people since 1992. The factory now produces furniture used in community centers, kindergartens, schools, and orphanages, such as tables, chairs, desks, kitchen desks, sport walls, play-room furniture, children bedroom furniture, shelves, cabinets, and wardrobes.
Gyumri Housing Factory today (left), Gyumri Housing Factory when it first opened (right)
In response to the earthquake, the Assembly opened an office in Yerevan in February 1989 and established a presence to help coordinate relief efforts. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Assembly worked intensively with the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance to ensure the delivery of emergency aid to Armenia, then took responsibility for and successfully lobbied Congress to appropriate the very first humanitarian relief aid funds to Armenia by channeling the assistance through United States Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs), since there was a strong sentiment against providing any aid which would assist the Soviet Government at the time.
The Assembly also recalls with great appreciation the generosity of Hirair Hovnanian, Arthur Halvajian, Carolyn Mugar, David Mugar, Ronald Altoon, and Sarkis Acopian, along with many others who stepped up to help our brothers and sisters in Armenia. Acopian joined a high level Assembly delegation that traveled to Armenia aboard his corporate jet to discuss rehabilitation efforts. The delegation, which included then-Board of Directors Chairman Jirair Haratunian and Board Members Robert A. Kaloosdian and Milton Gelenian, conferred with senior government officials as well as health and immigration specialists to determine, among other things, the scope of post-earthquake medical needs.
The Assembly also led a delegation of medical personnel to Armenia to view the destruction firsthand and determine ways in which the U.S. could provide additional relief and support. Recognizing the dire need for medical assistance, the Assembly organized the first trip, of many, for patients ranging from 8 years old to 45 years old to fly to the U.S. to receive treatment, under a special project cosponsored by AmeriCares, the Armenian Assembly, and Medical Outreach for Armenia.
In his 1988 radio address to the Nation for the holiday season, President Ronald Reagan spoke of the “breathtaking bravery of the people of Leninakan and Spitak as they ready themselves for the task of going on.” He added: “And, yes, they will go on, for the Armenian people are made of hardy stuff.”
During a press conference, President Reagan thanked the U.S. humanitarian relief staff, especially those in USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, who worked around the clock to coordinate efforts so that desperately needed supplies reached the survivors. He then thanked American relief organizations, churches, and Armenian Americans for their charitable response and for providing all forms of material assistance to the devastated area.
“Motherland” statue in front of Red Cross Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 1988 Armenia earthquake
“The Armenians have not had to face this tragedy alone. And for that I want to personally thank you on behalf of every American,” President Reagan said. Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s son, Jeb Bush, and grandson, George P. Bush, also went to Armenia aboard a cargo plane to deliver 50 tons of relief supplies and toys in late December of 1988.
“Reflecting on the thirty years following the devastating earthquake in Armenia, we want to express our sincere appreciation to Congress, the American Red Cross, and individuals across the country who generously contributed the unprecedented effort to provide critical aid to thousands of survivors,” stated Armenian Assembly Co-Chairs Anthony Barsamian and Van Krikorian. “We are proud of our work then and now in helping to make a profound difference for the Armenian people,” they continued.
Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer (left) and Major General Lee Tafanelli (right)
The Spitak Earthquake was historic for many reasons and the lessons are still being learned. None of that compares to the human toll on the Armenian people who lost so much. Every Armenian around the world felt their pain and remembers where he or she was on that date and in the aftermath. As we have in the past, the Armenian Assembly thanks all the countries, organizations, and individuals who rose to the occasion to help so generously.
During this year’s commemoration, a U.S. delegation led by Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer and Major General Lee Tafanelli are in Armenia to participate in the “Disaster Resistance Day” event dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the Spitak Earthquake. Governor Colyer was working as a White House Fellow with the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance when the earthquake struck in 1988. He was part of the U.S. medical response team that traveled to Armenia following the tragedy. During his two-week stay, Dr. Colyer administered medical aid to earthquake victims and provided logistical support to the U.S. rescue team.
“The Armenian people were incredible – coping under the most terrible circumstances,” Colyer recalled. “The scope of the disaster was overwhelming, yet the Armenian people were amazingly brave and receptive.” In 2013, then-Lieutenant Governor Colyer again visited Armenia to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the Kansas-Armenia partnership. He noted on the occasion that Armenia had professionalized its emergency response system and services and established world-class rescue systems. “So, out of the ashes rose a phoenix,” Governor Colyer stated.
Armenian Assembly Regional Director Arpi Vartanian laying a wreath for the 30th Anniversary of the Spitak Earthquake at Surb Amenaprkich (All Savior’s) Church in Gyumri
Governor Colyer and Major General Tafanelli placed flowers on the Memorial of the Innocent Citizens in Gyumri in front of Surb Amenaprkich (All Savior’s) Church. The previous day, Armenian Assembly Regional Director Arpi Vartanian laid a wreath at the church as well, and attended a special requiem service led by the Primate of the Shirak Diocese, His Grace Bishop Mikayel Ajapahyan. Vartanian also attended the U.S. Embassy’s event at its American Corner in the Gyumri Library where, together with Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Ryan Campbell, they discussed with students U.S. humanitarian assistance to Armenia – starting with the YMCA volunteers back in 1918, continuing to post-earthquake assistance, and following up with the Peace Corps and USAID assistance today.
Established in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.