‘You do what you can to stay positive’ — Philadelphians rally for Puerto Rico at annual parade

Philadelphia’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade is typically a festive celebration of the region’s cultural ties to the U.S. territory.

On Sunday, however, the tone along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was serious and even grim while attendees focused on raising money for those devastated by Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island on Wednesday with 125-mph winds.

“This is the worst part after the hurricane, where people don’t know what’s going on. There’s no communication. There’s nothing open. So they’re trying to figure out what’s next. It’s chaotic,” said Cristina Kolb, a Philadelphian originally from Puerto Rico. 

Kolb’s husband, Luis Rodriguez, said he joined Kolb in attending the parade in hopes of encouraging others to support the relief effort.

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“I have my grandma and my aunt. I know they need help, but I can’t do anything about it. So we come here and ask people to donate and give everything they can and support people of Puerto Rico who are going through hell right now,” Rodriguez said.

Officials say it could take up to six months before the millions of residents on the island have power again.

Volunteers collected money from the hundreds who came to the parade. Non-profit groups also encouraged people to donate essentials like clean water, food and hygiene products to meet the survivors’ immediate needs.

Gov. Tom Wolf spoke at the parade, announcing that he would be giving $15,000 from one of his political funds to support relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

Samantha Koury held a small Puerto Rican flag as a marching band performed as part of the parade. She has not heard from her loved ones in Puerto Rico. Still, she’s trying to stay optimistic.

“You do what you can to stay positive and hope that they’re all right and not get sort of swept up in the photos and videos that are rolling in, sometimes they’re kind of hard to watch,” Koury said.  “But if you have faith and prey to God that everything will be OK, then everything will be OK.”

Authorities say at least 10 in Puerto Rico have died, though that number is expected to climb as officials continue to survey the ravaged island.

Diego Santiago waved a large Puerto Rican flag with both hands. Sporting a bright red cap, screaming red pants and a T-shirt featuring the flag of the U.S. territory, he said he is hopeful his family members on the island are safe.

The Brooklyn-born Philadelphia resident said the silence has him on edge.

“No phone calls. There’s no water. There’s no electricity. Got my mother, my father, my cousins. Everybody that’s family over there. Grandmother, grandfather,” Santiago said. “They’re over there. We’re just waiting to here from them.”

Cynthia Roman, a public health graduate student at Temple University, said friends of hers in the Puerto Rican municipality of Bayamn have told her that some power has returned.

That said, for scores of others across the island, surviving off generations, fires and battery-powered devices is expected to be the norm for months to come.

“Diapers, tampons, food, just basic necessities, toothpaste. People should start sending these type of things,” Roman said. “Things that are going to be really hard to find.”

She said people who flock to the island as a Caribbean getaway should also take an interest in the island’s long-neglected infrastructure and the state power company’s debt crisis, which meant deferred maintenance on the power grid become all too common, something relief experts say will complicate the recovery.

“We are not just an island where you can go on vacation,” Roman said. “It’s good for you to go and recognize some of the issues on the island, as well.”

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