Ellis Island, the historic point of arrival in the United States for more than 12 million European immigrants, has been closed since Hurricane Sandy hit New York Harbor on October 29, and the damage to its museum and other landmark structures will cost millions in repair expenses and lost income.
The National Park Service, which manages the Statue of Liberty National Monument, of which Ellis Island is a part, estimates that the damage to Ellis and Liberty Islands from Sandy will cost $59 million to repair.
Meanwhile, the Islands lose income with each day they are closed.
“We’re missing major revenue streams,” said Peg Zitko, vice president of public relations for the The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, a private not-for-profit group that helps support the national monument.
Zitko’s foundation runs a gift shop whose profits supplement and bolster the island’s popular Immigration Museum. For a fee, which also aids the museum, the foundation offers visitors an impressive-looking document chronicling information on their immigrant forbears that was gathered when the newcomers first arrived.
“When the island is open, people can do research right there at the family history center on search stations,” Zitko explained. “Many people visit during the holidays and people often choose to reproduce family records.”
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.
But even as visitors left Liberty Island on the afternoon of its grand reopening, winds were picking up, with gusts reaching 38 miles per hour. It was an ominous sign of what was to come.
The next day, Hurricane Sandy swept through the harbor. From the outside, damage appeared at first to be minor. The museum, the island’s most prominent building, didn’t suffer any major exterior damage, and only a small number of panels came loose on the Immigrant Wall of Honor, just outside the museum, where the names of more than 700,000 immigrants who passed through Ellis Island are listed.
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.
Zitko said computer servers for the American Family Immigration History Center, which enabled visitors to search for information on their ancestors, needs to be replaced. She did not know what the cost would be, but said that the server system, which was located in the basement, will be moved to an upstairs location.
“It’s sad when you get off the boat and see the damage,” said Zitko, who visited Ellis Island shortly after the storm with National Park Service workers. “It’s such a blessing the Statue and Statue museum weren’t damaged and that the EIlis Island museum and those exhibits weren’t damaged. The repairs will happen.”
Estimates on just when, though, vary. In a Dec. 13 story, unnamed National Park Service officials told NPR that some parts of the Ellis and Liberty Islands complex would reopen “in some capacity” by summer.
Luchsinger, the park superintendent, would not confirm that projection.
Zitko and others warn that the longer the closure extends, the more Ellis and Liberty Islands will lose revenue that they depend on to augment their federal allocations.
In 2011, the Statue of Liberty National Monument, and Ellis Island with it, received $15.9 million in federal funds. Through its gift shop and immigrant certificate profits, Zitko’s Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation brought $6.3 million of its own to the islands in fiscal year 2010, the most recent period for which data are publicly available. Save Ellis Island channeled more than $441,000 in fiscal year 2010 into a separate immigration conference center it is developing on Ellis Island.
The storm and resulting closure of Ellis Island have also hurt other businesses affiliated with the park. 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.”
Vincent J. Cannato, author of the book, “American Passage: The History of Ellis Island,” said an extended delay in re-opening Ellis Island would be a big blow for visitors to New York. “It’s a major tourist attraction,” he said. “A few million people a year come to visit, and people want to come and see where their ancestors first landed in America.”
The island’s closure will also delay renovation projects on the south side of the island. Cannato said more than a dozen buildings in that area are “not in great condition” and “haven’t been open to the public for ages.”
Ellis Island first opened its doors in 1892 as the nation’s prime entry point for immigrants, who were arriving then in the millions, mostly via steerage. Its doors as an entry center closed in 1954, by which time immigrants arrived in the U.S. by plane. The island’s buildings were abandoned for 30 years after that, during which time they fell victim to vandalism and the elements.
The renovation of the main building began in 1984 and, after some $162 million in expenditures, culminated with its reopening as an immigration museum in 1990.
Cannato said that Ellis Island’s south side buildings, which remained unrestored, “hold slightly different significance.”
“Many were medical facilities, hospitals, quarantined wards, seen by far fewer immigrants,” he said, calling them sites of “both miracles and tragedy.
“There are some success stories of people cured or tragic stories of people who died there,” he explained.
Before Sandy hit, Save Ellis Island had been seeking to restore these abandoned buildings and use them for an envisioned Ellis Island Institute and Conference Center. Calella, the Save Ellis Island president, said the conference center would be used for lectures, exhibits and festivals on topics such as “human migration, tolerance, cultural diversity, and public health.”
Lorie Conway, author of the book “Forgotten Ellis Island,” and producer of an accompanying film, said restoring the south side buildings and creating the infrastructure to build such a center would have taken “hundreds of millions of dollars” even before the damage Sandy inflicted. She argued that the job was still worth doing, even with the additional damage.
“The medical side of [Ellis Island’s] history says so many great things about what we are as a country, how we respond to people who are sick and diseased, but also represents some darker history,” Conway said. “It became a place where doctors were really choosing who was able to come into America and who was turned away.”
Zitko, of the The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, was confident that the necessary repairs would ultimately be made throughout the island. “I think everyone involved, from the Park Service to the foundation to concessioners, is very eager to get the islands open as quickly as possible with full knowledge they have to be safe,” she said. “We kind of have to defer to the National Park Service. They know we’re standing ready to help any way we can.”
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.”
Contact Seth Berkman at email@example.com