Hurricane Sandy proved to be the biggest challenge of my life, just as it did for so many of my constituents in the 23rd Assembly District.
I received the call that Mayor Bloom-berg would be ordering evacuations for all of Rockaway and Zone A shortly before noon on Oct. 28. It seemed strange considering the lateness of the decision, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. I am familiar with dealing with public tragedy, but ultimately Sandy turned out to be a force of destruction that invaded my home, displaced my family and gave me an intimate experience in the tragedy of my neighbors and constituents that is unimaginable.
Prior to the storm, my staff and I prepared at our Rockaway office by compiling emergency information for residents. We reached out to community and civic leaders, religious organizations and healthcare institutions to ensure they knew the severity of the storm and were taking the appropriate precautions.
That Sunday night, we experienced large storm surges that rose to levels most people saw during Hurricane Irene last year. But that was only the beginning. By the next day, we saw that every preventative measure that had been taken on the beach by the city Parks Department was now destroyed, and we had little or no protection for what was coming that night when the full force of Sandy was expected to hit.
I spent the day visiting district volunteer firehouses and police precincts, checking to see how they fared and urging any remaining residents to evacuate. At 5 p.m. I left the Pointe Breeze Volunteer Fire Department and could already see the Jamaica Bay water running over the bay wall.
I made it home. My family had already evacuated, but I stayed behind to ensure that I would be around to help with the recovery efforts immediately. As I waited, I knew that the water would only continue to rise and I decided that I should leave my home before it was too late. I quickly packed a bag of clothes and bare essentials and headed out to a safer location. I struggled to walk through almost 4 feet of water to escape. I ended up at the 101st Precinct in Far Rockaway which became my temporary home for the following days.
Through the night, I watched the heroic actions of the police officers and listened in absolute shock to the police radio as calls were coming in and officers were being sent out. My children were safe with my wife and her family, but the pit of my stomach churned thinking about other children and other families, hoping they made it out, hoping that they survived. Reports of raging fires, high floodwaters and people stranded were nonstop.
The next morning shed daylight on the devastation that Sandy had ravaged on our beachside community.
I sat in my car on Tuesday morning not sure what to do, considering that about 85 percent of my district had been seriously damaged. Only as I drove around the community did I actually understand the level of damage that had been done. I quickly realized the awesome nature of this tragedy and the enormity of the challenges that were before us. Because there was no power or cell service, I had to physically visit every community leader in each neighborhood to strategize how we could begin recovery efforts immediately to give families the urgent relief they needed.
Clearly not prepared, the city and the Red Cross still had not arrived to provide any sort of assistance, but our community was not waiting. We knew that we had to start relief efforts immediately. I saw people battered by a night of no sleep and fear, drenched in water, coming out to help their neighbors without hesitation.
Our neighborhoods, our businesses and our homes were torn to pieces, flooded and burned by Sandy, but our community had to take the lead to save ourselves.
I was humbled by the heroism of regular citizens working around the clock with community leaders from every neighborhood to set up food and distribution sites in the Hamilton Beach fire house, Broad Channel American Legion, Waldbaum’s parking lot of Howard Beach and all over the Rockaways from Breezy Point to Far Rockaway. Each day, new sites would open and we worked to make certain that each one had necessary food and supplies. It was through the kindness of strangers and neighbors helping neighbors that we survived.
My district office was completely flooded and destroyed. Assemblyman Mike Miller welcomed my staff immediately, as well as set up a collection site for food and supplies that we were able to disseminate where needed. I cannot thank him enough for his kindness and generosity.
Throughout this ordeal, I responded personally to every email that was sent to me and was able to utilize social media to respond to immediate concerns and let people know what was needed. Rumors were running rampant, and I used every resource to disseminate good, reliable information so people knew what resources were available and what needed to be done. I attended block meetings and spent every day at various sites and traveling in the community to inform neighbors about important updates.
We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for the response from the NYPD, FDNY, National Guard and Department of Sanitation. I have been on the front lines since the beginning of this storm and many days have tested my resolve, but seeing the kindness of strangers and the strength of our first responders willed me to keep going. Those entities that failed, including the utility companies, will be held accountable, and I will work with Gov. Cuomo to ensure that we are better prepared for the future.
As my wife and I begin to piece together our own home and life, I am encouraged by the tremendous resiliency that I have seen during the last month. As I said before, Sandy came in as a force of destruction, but what came next was a force of unity and strength that no storm can take from us.
There are still enormous tasks ahead of us. There is still suffering. But I have an unwavering faith that this community will come back bigger and stronger than ever and I will not rest until every family is safe and secure back in their own home.
Phillip Goldfeder is New York State Assemblyman for the 23rd District in South Queens.