Four family members sat in chairs outside their home in the Puerto Rican mountains, surrounded by turmoil.
Everything from the home’s interior was strewn across the front yard, along with piles of trash stacked on maggot-covered box springs. The roof was gone, replaced by a sagging blue tarp.
Hurricane Maria spared nothing.
Inside, the family’s 91-year old matriarch lay on a thick stack of clothes – her makeshift bed. The family spritzed her face with water dropped by a FEMA helicopter to keep her cool. She wheezed for breath, but her oxygen machine had no power. She had no legs.
The tragic scene was emblematic of the suffering Hurricane Maria caused. It was also the reason Ryan Costello stopped driving and approached the house.
“I lived in Southeast Asia for 18 years, and I’ve seen a lot of hardship,” Costello said. “But this hit me like a ton of bricks.”
It was exactly what he was looking for.
Costello co-owns JR Blue Label Management, a major book distributor in Puerto Rico. He lives in Fleming Island, but has around 50 Puerto Rican employees and spends two weeks there each month managing the business.
Six hours before Maria struck the island, he left on one of the last flights.
Compelled by relationships he had with people from the island, the 38-year-old created a GoFundMe page days after the storm. The goal was to raise $10,000 – enough money to buy 25 generators.
“We knew from [Hurricane Georges] in 1998, when there were people without electricity for six months, that getting a generator to these people is something we could try to do,” said Costello’s wife Rebecca.
Though he’d never used the crowd-funding site before, Costello’s family and friends came strong — with donations ranging from $5 to $800.
After reaching his $10,000 goal, Costello dealt with the logistical nightmare of a territory with virtually no power grid or running water. He spent two weeks in an apartment with no power waiting on his shipment of generators to make its way through a backlogged port. Four of the generators were lost, stolen or sent to the wrong place. The remaining generators arrived on a Friday night and Costello loaded them into his cargo van.
Suddenly, he was in possession of an extremely valuable asset.
Word was people were paying more than $1,000 for generators — though they retail at $300 to $400. There were news articles about desperate citizens looting businesses and stealing refrigerators. Costello heard of people being held up at knife point for their generators. What if they knew he had 18?
Slightly paranoid, Costello parked his van below his balcony and pushed his mattress against the window — just in case something happened.
“A lot of it was just paranoia, but I really didn’t want to lose them after all it took to get them down there,” Costello said.
The next morning, Costello took to the mountain roads, looking for families to help. That’s when he passed the four family members sitting outside.
Costello introduced himself and said he wanted to help. He met the bedridden mother. He listened to their story.
When he told the family he had a generator for them there was disbelief. How much money? What do we need to do? Why?
Then came the tears.
“They all started to cry, I started to cry,” Costello said. “To see that kind of suffering, it was too emotional.”
Before arriving, Costello worried he wouldn’t find the right people — those who needed it the most. That fear evaporated when he met that family of five.
“All the questions and worry about who would get [a generator] went away,” Costello said. “There are so many people like this, we’ll find the right people to give it to.”
He was right. Costello gave a generator to an elderly lady who needed three machines to stay alive. Her generator had broken the day before. He also gave one to a man who had no power for his ventilator.
But the most emotional situation was one that struck close to home.
A father of five, Costello was overcome when he met a young couple whose baby was in the hospital. The child was born premature and spent four months in the hospital prior to the storm. Now, the hospital said the baby couldn’t leave until the family’s home had electricity, which could take six months, or they had a generator.
“It was something I needed to do for myself and for them,” Costello said.
The baby came home on Nov. 6.
Despite reaching his goal, Costello is determined to extend his efforts. He is still accepting donations at his GoFundMe, titled 25 Generators, and plans to continue visiting and helping Puerto Rico. “I could buy 1,000 generators, and it still wouldn’t be enough.”