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Ridgite welcomes nephews from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Family forever: Pedro and Alejandro Bernardi-Caraballo, at left, have lived with their aunt Karen Caraballo, center, her husband Mark Opalski, at right, and their cousin Lucas, center, for a little more than a month.
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She gave them shelter from the storm — or at least its aftermath.

A Ridgite who was born and raised in Puerto Rico has sheltered her two nephews at her Bay Ridge home for a little more than a month after the boys spent 12 hours locked in a bathroom while Hurricane Maria made landfall on the storm-whipped island. She said she was not planning to keep the boys in Brooklyn for so long, or even bring them back here in the first place, but that she quickly realized it would be the best place for them after the storm.

“They were really scared. I was really concerned about their health,” said Karen Caraballo, a psychologist. “Bringing the kids here and keeping them busy was a good experience for them.”

Caraballo, who has lived in Bay Ridge since she moved here in 2002, flew back to her home island on a relief flight on Sept. 30, ten days after the worst of the hurricane hit, to bring food and supplies to her family in Toa Alta, about 20 miles west of the capital city of San Juan. Caraballo’s sister Kenia Bernardi-Caraballo rode out the storm in their bathroom for 12 hours with her husband Pedro and their sons, 5-year-old Alejandro and 14-year-old Pedro. Even though the family’s home survived the storm, the widespread devastation — and the troubled relief effort — led Caraballo to convince her sister to let her bring the kids back to Brooklyn temporarily while their parents adjusted to post-storm life.

“Their house had minimal damages, but they didn’t have water for a long time, and they still don’t have electricity,” she said.

Caraballo, Pedro, and Alejandro flew back to the Ridge on Oct. 3, and she drew on her work as a psychologist to help the kids begin to process the trauma they endured, using art therapy and other methods, she said.

“The little one, he talks about the hurricane, and he draws pictures of the hurricane,” she said of Alejandro.

But they’ve made time for fun, too. Caraballo said she has brought the kids, who speak limited English, to museums, the Coney Island Aquarium, Governors’ Island, and a Cosmos game against Puerto Rico — a highlight for Pedro, a big soccer fan. And Ridge restaurateurs have chipped in, too. Caraballo said the owners of several local restaurants — including the Greenhouse Café, the Brooklyn Firefly, Cebu, Ho’Brah, Peppino’s, and Lock Yard — gave the family gift cards to enjoy a meal.

The kids have been enjoying the sights of New York while their mother, a school principal, and father, a food distributor, continuing working in Puerto Rico out of fear that if they don’t, they will lose their jobs.

Caraballo will accompany the boys back to the island on Nov. 12 to rejoin their parents — but not without a tinge of sadness. Alejandro said he will miss playing with Caraballo’s son, his 4-year-old cousin Lucas, and Pedro said he does not want to go back but knows he has to finish ninth grade.

Despite the immense destruction that the storm wrought, it also brought Puerto Ricans, Caraballo’s family — and even her generous Ridge neighbors — closer together, she said.

“Nobody thought it was going to be so devastating and catastrophic — they were shocked and sad and angry,” she said. “But at the same time, I saw that the communities came together, and I also saw a lot of resilience.”

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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