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Homewood couple collects donations for storm ravaged Puerto Rico, worry about relatives

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By Donna Cope

Alabama NewsCenter

Friends and relatives helped the Robert family gather relief supplies for Puerto Rico. (Maria Robert, Provided Photo)

Puerto Rico residents were left reeling in the wake of devastation from Hurricane Maria last month.

It’s the “not knowing” that filled relatives in the mainland United States with worry. The world of Birmingham couple Maria and Francisco “Paco” Robert was set spinning, as well, following the hurricane that ravaged Puerto Rico.

The Robert’s major worry was about their San Juan relatives – namely the safety of Maria’s 94-year-old mother. Sporadic cellphone coverage across Puerto Rico left the couple feeling out of touch.

“My mother’s nursing home closed after the storm because there was no diesel to fuel the generator,” Maria Robert said. Her brother brought their mother to his San Juan home, where there was no electricity or running water.

“I’m overwhelmed because there’s no communication, no power there,” Maria Robert said. “Landlines for phones are down. Some roads are open in the metro area, but if you don’t have gas, it’s difficult.”

Robert’s mother became one of the fortunate ones on Sept. 29, when she was evacuated on a humanitarian flight to Dallas. Maria Robert rushed to meet her mother and brother, a physician, who flew with their mother.

The Roberts left Puerto Rico 27 years ago for Alabama, and have made Homewood their home for 12 years. Maria Robert has siblings who live on the mainland, including  a sister in North Carolina, a brother in Florida and a brother in Houston, Texas. Francisco Robert, an oncologist, is among UAB’s top cancer specialists, named among Newsweek’s leading cancer doctors in 2015.

“We’re all trying to help figure out what to do and see how we can help,” Maria Robert said. “I’m overwhelmed. I’m at my computer 24/7.”

On Sept. 28, she placed fliers around her Homewood neighborhood to help collect items to send to Puerto Rico.

“As I am sure you are all aware, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico one week ago, and today the island still remains entirely without electricity and telecommunications, coping with severe shortages of food, drinking water and gasoline, where lines form for miles long to get the rationed quota,” Maria Robert wrote.

Some Puerto Rican residents in Atlanta secured a cargo plane to fly to the island with needed supplies. The Roberts coordinated the donations through a project with Buen Provecho Restaurant in Marietta, Georgia, and Porch Light Latin Kitchen in Smyrna, Georgia.

Elmer Passapera, owner of Buen Provencho, said he hasn’t been able to reach his family in Puerto Rico and wants to do something to help.

The Roberts collected items at their home, with Francisco Robert delivering the donations to Atlanta on Oct. 1. The items will be bound for Puerto Rico by Oct. 4.

Among the items the couple collected are adult and baby diapers, baby formula, batteries, battery-powered lamps, can openers, bleach, disinfecting wipes, feminine products, first-aid kits, flashlights, hand sanitizer, over-the-counter medicines, such as Tylenol and diarrhea medicines, sunscreen and water purification tablets. Because of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations, clothes can’t be donated.

The Roberts thanked their neighbors for helping.

“The response from the neighbors and friends has been great,” Maria Robert said. “I feel blessed to live in such a caring community, and will be forever grateful for their generosity and their prayers at this time that my heart is aching for my beautiful and beloved Puerto Rico, and especially the many humble and brave fellowmen who have lost everything and need our help.”