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Puerto Rican Day Parade a reminder: There’s work to do after Hurricane Maria

Florida’s 21st Annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, presented by United Third Bridge, Inc. drew thousands of spectators and participants in Palm Bay. It was followed by a festival of music, food, and more.  TIM SHORTT/ FLORIDA TODAY

J.D. Gallop, FLORIDA TODAY

Thousands turned out for the 21st annual Puerto Rican Day Parade and festival in Palm Bay, presented by United Third Bridge. Video posted Nov. 5, 2017, by Tim and Riley Shortt

There was a decidedly new purpose in the party for thousands of Puerto Ricans like Ruben Santos crowded along the grounds of City Hall to celebrate the U.S. island territory. But much of the fun was tempered with the sobering understanding that many continue to struggle in wake of Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic passage over the island Sept. 16.

“Two of my aunts lost their houses. They lived there all their lives,” said Santos, who joined about 7,000 to 8,000 attendees at the 21st annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in Palm Bay.

“We need to rebuild the island. Something like this is really good to keep that message going,” he said, stopping to pose on a firetruck with his 10-year-old son, Ruben Jr.

The event, with vendors selling traditional barbecued pork, grilled corn and arroz con pollo, was the culmination of a three-day program that began with a banquet Friday night.

On Sunday, there was a parade featuring colorful floats, music from high school marching bands and shouts of “Viva Puerto Rico,” from the crowds. Salsa and merengue echoed across the grounds in front of the city hall complex off Malabar Road, prompting young and old to wave flags and make room for dancing.

Just a few feet from a booth selling a grilled meats sat a voting booth, a reminder that elections were quickly around the corner.

“This event is very, very helpful. It’s both a chance for the community to connect and for people can come out and relax a little,” said Oscar Rivera, an activist who returned from the island last Tuesday. Rivera spent 10 days in Puerto Rico, mostly in the hard-hit mountainous regions left devastated by mudslides and flooding left behind by Maria.

“I stayed with families in different areas. It was tough. There are still a lot of places without power and water. People are struggling, and we need to be engaged,” he said.

Organizers, including United Third Bridge, incorporated fundraising into the program, reminding those attending that families arriving in the U.S. would need assistance with housing and finding work.

“We need to do whatever we can to help our fellow brothers,” Sam Lopez told the enthusiastic crowd gathered near a stage. Organizers pointed out that over 100 students from the American territory were enrolling in Brevard Public Schools, with hundreds more families arriving in Osceola and Orange counties.

Arriving families were also in need of rentals and hotel rooms, Lopez said, adding South Brevard has a large Puerto Rican population.

Lopez said he is also working with Palm Bay officials to set up a task force that will draw up plans to deal with future evacuees of disasters like Maria. “This is for all evacuees. This is something we need to be prepared for,” he said.

Others gathered were just appreciative for the renewed focus on storm victims.

“I have an aunt on the island who went through the storm. She’s doing pretty well now but five weeks later is still without power,” said 17-year-old Jennifer Velazquez of Palm Bay. “This is very good to see.”

Contact Gallop at 321-242-3642

or jdgallop@floridatoday.com.

Twitter: @jdgallop

All  Photos by TIM SHORTT/ FLORIDA TODAY






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