Tourists, Ferries, Parks Feel Pain from Ellis Island Post-Sandy Closure

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty remain closed. (Photo by Sue Waters, via Flickr, Creative Commons License)

In an article for the Jewish Daily Forward, Seth Berkman reports on another casualty of Hurricane Sandy that still has not resumed normalcy: Ellis and Liberty Islands. The National Park Service puts repair estimates at $59 million. The department manages the Statue of Liberty National Monument, which includes Ellis Island. The Islands have remained closed and continue to lose income with each additional day.

The winter holiday season, when visitor numbers go up, is usually one of the most lucrative periods in the museum’s revenue cycle. This year, expectations were especially high, thanks to the October 28 reopening of the Statue of Liberty’s crown on neighboring Liberty Island after a yearlong $30 million renovation. Tickets to the top of Lady Liberty were already sold out through the end of 2012.

The day after Hurricane Sandy hit on October 29, damaged seemed small at first, with the most prominent building surviving without much damage and the Immigrant Wall of Honor, which includes the names of over 700,000 immigrants, remaining intact.

But Park Service workers soon discovered extensive flooding in the museum’s basement, which disabled the heating, electrical, sewage and HVAC systems. A medical exhibit housed in the Ferry Building, which connects the museum to the south end of the island, also suffered about $400,000 worth of damage, according to Janis Calella, president of Save Ellis Island, another non-profit support group.

Farther out on the island, damage to docks, fuel tanks, and storage warehouses left debris scattered throughout the area, making it unsafe for tourists to visit the grounds. Photographs of this damage can be seen on the National Park Service’s flickr page, which includes one image of a police boat swept inland and trapped between a trailer and a cooling plant.

“I will say from a personal standpoint, we were here on Tuesday morning after the storm and the initial reaction was ‘Oh my God, what’s happened?’” said Liberty National Monument Parks Superintendent Dave Luchsinger. “It was pretty dramatic.”

Though unharmed so far, some the museum’s invaluable archives remain in danger. An estimated 1.7 million documents and artifacts are in the process of being temporarily moved to a site in Maryland to prevent damage that could occur if they were to remain inside for an extended period without regulated climate control. Luchsinger estimated that so far, one-third of the documents have been moved.

Estimates as to when the Islands can reopen remain vague. NPS officials told NPR in a Dec. 13 story that parts of the Islands would reopen “in some capacity” by summer but it’s nonetheless hard to tell.

The damage has also hit businesses which depend on Ellis Island.

Statue Cruises, which provides ferry service to the island, had to lay off 130 staff members, a mix of part-time and full-time workers, according to Tegan Firth, the company’s corporate public relations manager. Firth also said that revenues “for this time of the year” are off by 80 percent.

Tom Bernardin, a former park ranger at Ellis Island who now gives guided tours there, said he has had to apply for food stamps and disaster unemployment assistance from the New York Department of Labor, because the Island’s closure has effectively closed his business.

“It’s how I make my living,” said Bernardin, who said he provides two to three tours a week. “I had a slew of tours cancelled. I had quite a few scheduled, and up until last week I was getting calls for people coming in for the holidays.

“I feel very singular in this situation,” he said. “There are a lot of New York City tour guides and a lot of them have their specialties —Wall Street, Central Park. I’m the only one who really hung his career hat at Ellis Island. One would have thought that one of the major attractions in the U.S. would be a pretty safe place to build a career, but it ain’t. I feel like I’m an actor whose show just got cancelled.”

However, there was some relief, said Liberty National Monument Parks Superintendent Dave Luchsinger.

Luchsinger found comfort in the fact that the preeminent symbol of Ellis Island, the Great Hall, through which all of the millions of new immigrants, rich and poor, passed was unscathed.

“I was absolutely elated when I went inside the Statue and the monument, and the Statue had sustained no damage whatsoever,” he said. “All the work from the last year, and no damage. [At Ellis Island] it was so wonderful to go inside the main museum and see the first floor and artifacts and exhibits were not touched.”

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