For more than 100 years, Ellis Island has been an important symbol of the nation’s immigration system, a place where more than 12 million people passed through between 1892 and 1924 seeking a better life in America. And since 1990, when Ellis Island reopened as a museum, millions more have walked through its doors, seeking to understand its role in creating the nation’s “melting pot” of culture and their own family roots.
But for the past eight months, Ellis Island has been eerily quiet, another victim of the rage of Superstorm Sandy. The Oct. 29 storm flooded the island with what National Park Service officials say was at least an 8-foot wall of water, destroying its electrical system and damaging many of its historic buildings—including the immigration museum.
“We went back through the historical records, and Ellis Island has never seen a storm like this. … We thought the buildings were on high enough ground, but nobody imagined water coming over the walls like it did,” Diana Pardue, head of museum services for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, said. “It was very damaging storm.”
Neighboring Liberty Island, home to the Statue of Liberty, also sustained major damage from Sandy—adding up to a combined $59 million in damage to both islands, according to the NPS. But after months of renovations—including the rebuilding of its electrical system, walkways and boat docks--Liberty Island will reopen Thursday in time for the Independence Day holiday.
Yet Ellis Island will remain dark, closed until at least next year. Park officials, who had put all their focus on getting Liberty Island back open, say they will soon turn their attention to Ellis Island, where they will undertake a massive renovation aimed not only at repairing Sandy damage but protecting the island from future storms.
“The decision was made early on that we didn’t just want to put everything back where it was so that if there is another storm like this” the island is better prepared, Pardue said.
While park officials say they are only now beginning to plot the exact details of the rebuilding process at Ellis Island, their early decisions mirror those made by building owners in Lower Manhattan who are being forced to bring their structures, many of which are more than 100 years old, into the modern age.
Like most older buildings in New York, the Ellis Island Museum’s electric and climate-control system was located in the basement and was damaged by flooding caused by Sandy’s storm surge. Millions of artifacts, including early immigration records and photographs of the people who passed through Ellis Island, were spared—in part because they were stored on higher floors. But the flood cut the power to the climate control system that protected those artifacts—forcing officials to relocate its holdings to an NPS storage facility in Maryland earlier this year until renovations are complete.
A building located on the island’s south side that held transformers and other power panels supplying energy to other buildings on Ellis Island also was flooded—and that power system will have to be replaced.
To prepare for future storms, park officials are planning to move the majority of its electrical panels and transformers above ground—or at least to an area that is not as susceptible to flooding. While the museum’s climate system is too big to relocate, officials are looking into ways to make the building “water tight”—a detail that wasn’t in place before because officials never anticipated flood waters rising high enough to reach the facility, which sits on a higher part of the island.
“We had never even had water come over the sea wall and get on the grass, much less make it into the basement,” Pardue said. “If things had been on the first floor, we’d be fine. We’d probably be open. ... (But) no one anticipated anything like this. We have to look at things differently, and that’s why we are taking our time to get stuff right.”
But Sandy also set back other renovation efforts on the island.
Save Ellis Island, a non-profit group that worked with the NPS to reopen the island, had been leading an effort to renovate an old hospital facility and other empty buildings on the south side of the island. The hospital project had been set to get underway in November 2012 but has now been postponed. And the group, which raises funds for the renovations and special exhibits largely through educational programs on the island, has been forced to cancel its calendar for the year.
“After making such incredible strides and opening (the island) to the public after more than fifty years, it's extremely disappointing to lose ground,” said Janis Calella, the group’s president
Park officials have declined to say exactly when Ellis Island will reopen—just that they hope to reopen it sometime in 2014. In the meantime, generators are powering the building where Pardue and her colleagues returned to work earlier this spring to oversee clean-up and renovations at both Ellis and Liberty Islands. There is some power—engineers were able to turn on the lights in the museum last month for the first time since the storm—but it’s minimal.
In recent weeks, Ellis Island has been a hive of activity—full of park rangers being retrained after months away to handle visitors at Liberty Island. But it’s still not the kind of crowds that are usually exploring Ellis Island at what is typically the height of its tourist season.
“It’s very weird… It’s quiet. There’s no people around, it’s just us,” Pardue said. “It’s very different.”