Sean O’Leary spent the night of October 29 in a truck. He was doing a double shift for New Jersey Natural Gas, where he has worked for 25 years. “I was driving around, doing calls, dodging trees,” he says. “As first responders, we saw the destruction long before most residents.” For O’Leary nearly five months of working doubles followed: 16-hour shifts, six or seven days a week, sleeping whenever and wherever he could, often on a neighbor’s sofa.
Weeks passed before he had time to assess the damage to his home in the Sunshine Harbor section of Point Pleasant, across from Barnegat Bay. There, he found the all-too-familiar evidence of Sandy’s ferocity. “My first full day off 13 friends and family members showed up to help me gut the house.”
In February, O’Leary was still working doubles, helping other storm victims. He responded to a call at a residence and met brothers Jose and Miguel Mojica, construction workers from Neptune who were making repairs at the house. Impressed with their work, O’Leary hired them. For the next nine weeks, the brothers toiled at his home, sheet rocking, tiling, installing cabinets and painting.
An avid cook, O’Leary, who is divorced, took the opportunity to upgrade his kitchen. Without an architect or designer or any kind of plan, O’Leary and his crew swung into action. “Everything I’ve done here is caffeine-induced,” he says. “I designed it just the way I cook—on the fly.” The new kitchen uses stock materials, primarily from the Home Depot and Lowe’s, including cognac cabinets, granite countertops, marble backsplash tile and deluxe stainless appliances. “This is my castle,” he proudly proclaims.
The living room is a work in progress. The new focal point is a coal-burning fireplace insert, a rustic element that will help heat the house. On the first level, tile flooring replaced the destroyed wide-oak planks. “Tile is more resilient. If it floods again, I can wash it off,” O’Leary says. The improvised wine rack, built into a wall at the base of the stairway, “looks like a Coke machine,” he says.
Much of the rest of the house is still a mess. O’Leary now sleeps upstairs; his teenaged sons, Evan, 17 and Kameron, 16—whose bedrooms were destroyed—stay nearby with their mom (O’Leary shares custody). Rooms are mostly empty—which comes in handy for storing the shopvac, buckets of spackle, paint cans and other telltale signs of renovation. Only one room is pristine: O’Leary’s kitchen castle.
Construction Crew: Jose and Miguel Mojica, Neptune, 732-513-1606