The Disaster District


On Monday night, State Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder slept with his head on a desk in the 101st Precinct station house in the Rockaways for a scant 90 minutes and then waded back out into his fire- and flood-stricken district early in the morning.

But first, he sat in his car, and . . . hesitated. The moment sort of overwhelmed him. There was no rule book for this situation. “I said to myself, ‘What the heck am I going to do?’ Fires are still going. Homes are underwater. What am I going to do? And I came to the realization that people just want to see me out there, to reassure them and do what I can to address their needs.”

Just 31 years old and in office for only a year, Goldfeder, a native of the Rockaways, has found himself thrust into one of the worst calamities ever to strike the district and “the most unimaginable challenge of his life.”

So in little moments, one by one, Goldfeder roamed the neighborhoods of Breezy Point, Belle Harbor, Far Rockaway, and elsewhere, to show his face and talk to his constituents. At one point, he drove stranded hitchhikers to the airport. He called on the Red Cross “ASAP. . . . People are congregating near the precinct looking for food.”

“People keep talking about the devastation, but until you’ve seen it firsthand, until you’ve seen emergency-services vehicles abandoned and buried in four to five feet of water, you haven’t experienced it,” he says.

Goldfeder’s family was safely evacuated to Flushing before the storm, but his home is flooded. He could smell the pungent odor of mold this morning when he went to retrieve some clothes. His district office was destroyed by eight-foot waters. Worse, he says, something like nine out of 10 houses in the whole district are significantly damaged in some way. Sand is piled inland four feet deep. The boardwalk is in shambles.

As the storm rolled in, Goldfeder was sitting in the police station when two exhausted officers walked in for a rest. “You could tell in their faces that they had been working nonstop. They were just spent, and then another call came in, and they ran out without hesitation. It was a moving moment for me.”

Many firefighters and police officers live in the district, and there was deep frustration that here were people trained to deal with disasters, and they just had to watch the fires burn without the ability to deal with them, Goldfeder says.

Driving on Beach 84th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, he says he saw two dozen people break into a sneaker store and cart off whatever they could in wagons. “It’s bad,” he says. “But the police department is doing the best it can.”

But there were positive moments, too: “People from different walks of life in the precinct sharing tough times together, making instant friendships,” he says.

Goldfeder had to go back to touring the area, but he added that Howard and Hamilton beaches have started to recover. The situation is dire in the Rockaways, though. “There’s no power, no stores, people are cold and hungry,” he says. “It’s just a very difficult scene.”