Statue of Liberty re-opening for first time since Sandy

NEW YORK Months after superstorm Sandy swamped her little island, the Statue of Liberty will finally welcome visitors again on Independence Day.

Sandy made landfall one day after the statue's 126th birthday, flooding most of the 12 acres she stands upon with water that surged as high as 8 feet. Lady Liberty herself was spared, but the surrounding grounds on Liberty Island took a beating.

Railings broke, docks and paving stones were torn up and buildings were flooded. The storm destroyed boilers, sewage pumps and electrical systems.

Hundreds of National Park Service workers from as far away as California and Alaska spent weeks cleaning mud and debris. In recent months, all mechanical equipment was moved to higher ground as workers put the island back in order.

The damage to Liberty Island and neighboring Ellis Island cost an estimated $59 million. Some repairs to brick walkways and docks are still under way, but on July 4, visitors will arrive via ferry boats once again to tour the national landmark.

"People will have, more or less, the same access to Liberty Island that they had before," said John Warren, a spokesman for the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

The ceremony Thursday will include remarks by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D, N.J.), New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others. It will close with a ribbon-cutting and performance by singer and actor Dominic Chianese, best known as Corrado "Junior" Soprano on the HBO series "The Sopranos."

A gift from France, the statue was conceived to symbolize the friendship between the two countries and their shared love of liberty. It was dedicated in 1886 and welcomes about 3.5 million visitors every year.

People who purchased tickets in advance can also look out over New York Harbor from the statue's crown, which reopened after a long hiatus one day before Sandy hit and was forced to close again due to the storm. The crown had been off-limits for a year during a $30 million upgrade to fire alarms, sprinkler systems and exit routes.

Security screening for visitors will be held in lower Manhattan after city officials criticized an earlier plan to screen them at neighboring Ellis Island, which endured far worse damage to its infrastructure and won't be open to the public anytime soon.

Home to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the island still doesn't have working electricity, sewage systems or telephone lines, Warren said.

The museum showcases the stories of the millions of immigrants who disembarked there to start their lives as Americans. Its historical documents and artifacts survived the storm unscathed, but more than 1 million items were transported to storage facilities because it was impossible to maintain the climate-controlled environment needed for their preservation.

Park officials would not provide a projected reopening date for Ellis Island.

For tourists like Davide Fantinelli, an 18-year-old from Italy, the reopening comes a bit too late. Fantinelli will already be back home by July 4th, but he and his parents managed to catch a glimpse of the statue from the deck of a water taxi.

The sight of it was one he'll never forget.

"Because it's liberty," Fantinelli said. "It means freedom -- of this great nation."

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