“It’s just been painted with mud, debris, wreckage,” said O’Neill, a long-time resident of the small, close-knit community and a well-known painter on the local art scene. “It’s hard to take in, isn’t it?”
Everywhere were fallen trees and tree limbs; shingles, soffit, fascia and other detritus from wind-scoured buildings, intermingled with mud from floodwaters and storm surge. As with similar scenes throughout Southwest Florida and the Caribbean, the destruction serves as an unmistakable reminder of Mother Nature’s heart-rending, destructive power.On her left, sat her Coconut Avenue cottage that bears, like other structures in the village, the scars of Irma’s wrath.
“This is my home,” said O’Neill, who also has a house on Marco with her husband, George Vellis. “It was a tear-down when I bought it in 1998. Instead I gutted it and rebuilt it board-by-board myself over six or seven years and it’s just the cutest little thing. So it’s more than just a house to me. It’s personal. I built this. They said it couldn’t be done and I did it.”Before the hurricane, it was flanked by two towering trees, one a 60-foot-tall strangler fig and the other, a ficus, roughly 40 feet in height. Both were uprooted by Irma and landed on the cottage and in the front yard, gashing the roof, the foliage of one partially covering O’Neill’s Honda Accord, which was parked near the street.
“I believe I’m going to be rethinking my landscaping,” O’Neill said with a laugh, while taking a break from cleaning and clearing almost two weeks after the September 10 storm.Flooding deposited about two feet of what O’Neill described as “stinky, smelly mud” in the 575 square-foot, concreteblock structure that was once Goodland’s cistern. But her small, elevated, backyard art studio, while battered, remained intact.
Like their neighbors, the ensuing days have seen O’Neill and her husband on an emotional rollercoaster as they deal with seemingly endless debris, cleaning, assessing damage and finding roof tarps, dealing with insurance companies and calling contractors.
“I have found that my little trick for working here is, ‘just don’t look up,’” she said. “If you look up, you get so overwhelmed that you can’t breathe. But if you just look down at the pile in front of you and keep hauling it away, next thing you know, you’ve got a path.”
O’Neill and Vellis rode out Irma at her nephew’s home in Sarasota.
“So Monday morning, George and I got up and got on the highway and got to our Marco house by about noon,” she said. We lost the pool cage, but we don’t care. But we had the most ‘treed’ yard on the island. They’re gone and it breaks my heart. But it’s the tropics, so it’ll grow.”
When O’Neill and her husband reached the village, the heartbreak deepened, but when they reached the corner of Goodland Drive and Coconut Avenue, where the cottage sits, they were greeted by a truly unexpected sight, six trucks from CNN, including one topped by a large satellite.
“You know what you never want to see in front of your house,” she said. “Six trucks from CNN with a big satellite on the roof of one of them. I just said to this person, ‘Are you here to photograph the only little cute cottage that didn’t get hit?’ She said, ‘Oh my God, is that your house behind all that?’ I said, ‘No, it’s under it.’ Really, that was the biggest shock, seeing that whole line of trucks from CNN.”
The damage to Goodland has been like a sledgehammer to the emotions for the normally happy-go-lucky artist.
“This, this is just… If you keep moving, you’re fine,” she said. “If you sit still, if I sit still, that’s when waves of depression hit. I’ve had the hardest time getting the photographs to the insurance company. I took a million of them and I’d take them home and start going through them. I can look at this and just act, but looking at photographs, I would just lose it. I’m just being as honest as I can because I just feel raw.”
Despite the destruction and the monumental tasks that lie ahead, O’Neill said she’s doing OK, calling her situation better than that of many people.
“That seems to be the number one phrase you hear in Goodland when you ask, ‘How’d it go,’” she said. “They’re like, ‘Better than some. Not as good as others.’”
O’Neill praised her fellow “Goodlanders” for their selflessness where pitching in to assist their neighbors, no matter the awaiting work at their own homes.
“Nobody in this village walks by without stepping in and helping,” she said. “It’s a miracle. I mean little kids, old folks.”
She also praised the unexpected contributions from people who selflessly traveled to the area, sometimes from far-flung locales, to help with the recovery.
O’Neill said a group of Mormons from Tampa who slept at Mackle Park during their stay, helped her get one tree off the cottage’s roof.
“The diameter at the base of the trunk would be at least six feet and all of it landed on here,” she said gesturing at the building. “They had chains and saws and monster trucks and they just pulled that sucker off.”
On the day of the interview a Methodist church group from Tennessee that was volunteering in the community took chainsaws to fallen trees at O’Neill and Vellis’ cottage and also placed a tarp on the roof.
“We felt this was where we’re supposed to be,” said one of the Tennesseans.
The road to recovery is in its nascent stages, but O’Neill is certain that Goodland will most certainly bounce back.
“We will do it together,” she said. “I don’t think there are words to express how much people are helping each other. People who haven’t even spoken to each other are cleaning debris from each other’s porches. The village is gonna do it by doing it together. We certainly seem to be at the bottom of the list for all the public assistance organizations so thank God we have each other.”