Puerto Rican Day Parade

Steve Burns/WCBS 880

Concerns About Hurricane Maria Aftermath Amid Festivity Of Puerto Rican Day Parade

June 10, 2018 - 11:53 am

NEW YORK (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) -- Floats, musicians, and brightly-colored costumes were seen as the Puerto Rican Day Parade stepped off on Fifth Avenue.

But amid all the fun and celebration, organizers and participants were keeping a spotlight on something serious: that months after Hurricane Maria roared over Puerto Rico, and as the next hurricane season arrives, the U.S. island territory is still struggling.

"This is a year where Puerto Rico has been devastated," said Louis Maldonado, chairman of the board that oversees the parade and its affiliated events. "We need to keep that part of the conversation."

Those watching the parade in person saw that in the marching contingents, including one made up of people who are on the U.S. mainland only because they were displaced from their homes on the island, he said.

As WCBS 880’s Steve Burns reported, a four-digit number was everywhere along the parade route – on signs, floats, and shirts. The number was 4,645 – the death toll attributable to Hurricane Maria as estimated by Harvard University.

Carolyn Cole came to the parade to celebrate, but she had a more serious mission too.

“It’s also to show the people of Puerto Rico that we cared enough to be there; to help, and that we have not stopped,” she said.

Cole was one of the first nurses to fly in after the hurricane hit, spending two weeks going from village to village.

“The people there were so thankful to see us,” she said. “It did my heart really good.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo marched in the parade and noted that a deployment of first 100 students, and nearly 20 skilled labor volunteers, will leave for Puerto Rico on Sunday, June 17.

“We have SUNY students and CUNY students who are going to volunteer and get college credit. We have labor unions that are volunteering,” he said.

The initial deployment will embed with the nonprofit rebuilding agencies All Hands and Hearts, Heart 9/11, and NECHAMA to rebuild and restore homes. The students will be in Puerto Rico for two weeks.

Cuomo was also joined by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-New York) for a breakfast ahead of the parade.

“We did more help, better help, faster help for other countries than we have done for Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria,” Cuomo said, “and the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens. It’s not a different country. And there are no second-class American citizens.”

“As a nation who has been the beacon of hope to so many, we failed fellow citizens in Puerto Rico,” Velázquez added.

The parade also honored first responders and others who stepped up to help with both emergency efforts and ongoing recovery work, as well as recognizing CBS News correspondent David Begnaud.

On Friday night, at a gala fundraiser, Begnaud was honored as the "Puerto Rican Champion" for his extensive coverage both on air and on social media following the hurricane. Earlier this year David was awarded the George Polk Award for Public Service. And on Sunday, he will be one of the honorees leading the Puerto Rican Day Parade down the Fifth Avenue.

For those watching via the live broadcast, Maldonado said, there will be guests talking about the issues, as well as specific segments focused on particular issues, like the plight of teachers on the island or environmental issues.

This year's parade comes a year after a controversial one, when the parade organization's decision to recognize Oscar Lopez Rivera, a former member of a militant group responsible for a series of bombings, led some sponsors to withdraw their support and some politicians like Gov. Andrew Cuomo decline to take part.

Cuomo has been an outspoken proponent of the need to help Puerto Rico after the September storm and is expected to take part in this year's event.

"People have really turned the page on everything that happened last year," Maldonado said.

He also said that, at least on the parade board's part, this year's focus on the island's recovery needs would be about the issues, and "not about the politics."

President Trump's administration has been criticized by opponents for its handling of the hurricane's aftermath; for instance, eight months later, full power has yet to be restored. A recent study from Harvard University estimated there were 4,645 deaths attributable to Hurricane Maria over three months, although some independent experts questioned the methods and the number in that study.

The official federal death toll is at 64.

Speaking to WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell last month, Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said he suspected a government undercount.

“And for a variety of reasons, (the government) does not want the real numbers out there, I guess,” Redlener said on May 29.

At least one parade participant, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., said the parade needs to take a political tone. He and the group he is marching with plan to be in black T-shirts that reflect the Harvard study's estimate of the dead.

"It would be a missed opportunity this Sunday … if we don't show an act of solidarity, an act of protest, an act of defiance," he said, "to let the world know we still have a president and Congress that still has not done right by 3.5 million Americans.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)