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Recovering From Hurricane Sandy
6/24/2013
Ellis and Liberty islands struggle to recover after Hurricane Sandy.
The timing was uncanny: As it whipped up the East Coast last October, Hurricane Sandy closed Liberty Island to visitors one day after the Statue of Liberty’s newly renovated interior was reopened. Damage to its companion in New York Harbor, Ellis Island, closed that national landmark as well.
 
At press time, Liberty Island was undergoing repair and set to reopen July 4. “At least 70 percent of the island was inundated,” says Linda Friar, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, which manages Liberty and Ellis islands. Staff housing and the island’s shuttle dock were ruined. The Statue of Liberty itself wasn’t harmed, and archival material inside it had already been removed for the renovation.

Ellis Island, however, remains closed through at least 2013. The Immigration Museum, site of the Great Hall where immigrants were processed, received little structural damage. But Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge flooded the museum’s basement with seawater, destroying the island’s infrastructure—heating, electrical systems, ventilation and communications—and pulling the plug on the museum’s controlled climate.

Its million historical artifacts, documents and photos were on upper floors. “The museum became like a refrigerator when the power goes out,” says Bob Sonderman, director of the park service’s Capital Region Museum Resource Center and among the first to arrive on Ellis Island after the storm. “As long as you don’t open the door, the items inside will last a little longer.”

The Ferry Building, once the departure point for immigrants who’d passed inspection, needed immediate attention. Doors and windows were blown off and old medical equipment, on loan from Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, was soaked with saltwater. A Cultural Resources Emergency Response Team of architects, curators, maintenance workers and others assessed and removed the items.

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking for the Immigration Museum, where mold was sprouting and condensation beaded on walls. The artifacts had to be moved. But where? A search failed to turn up a nearby museum-quality location. Sonderman offered up the Museum Resource Center in Maryland.

Thirty people took about six weeks to move the artifacts. “Teams would come in and out, staying a week or two at a time,” says Diana Pardue, chief of museum services at Ellis Island. Museum staff members and emergency response team members from all over the Northeast packed items according to museum guidelines. “We used acid-free boxes, acid-free paper, foam padding and archival boxes,” Pardue says.

Researchers can request limited access to the Ellis Island collection at its temporary residence. Pardue is confident it’ll return home, but that may take a while. “We still don’t have electricity,” she says from an office powered by generators and an old boiler. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation is raising funds for repairs; see statueofliberty.org for information.
 
From the July/August 2013 Family Tree Magazine 
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