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Statue of Liberty reopens after Sandy damage

Thousands swarm the towering icon as the national monument welcomes visitors once more. Liberty Island had been badly damaged in Superstorm Sandy.

July 05, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • Crowds visit the Statue of Liberty for the first time since it was closed in October because of damage from Susperstorm Sandy.
Crowds visit the Statue of Liberty for the first time since it was closed… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — Romance can be tumultuous, and no one knows that better than the Statue of Liberty. Over and over, Lady Liberty has been separated from her adoring public, most recently by an uninvited guest named Sandy who stormed through, leaving heartbreak and ruin in her wake.

For eights months, the statue stood alone in New York Harbor, but the painful breakup was pushed aside Thursday as visitors returned to the Statue of Liberty for the first time since the superstorm shut her down on Oct. 29, 2012. It was the third closure since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little bit tired of reopening and closing the Statue of Liberty," David Luchsinger, the national monument's superintendent, said with a laugh as the sun beat down on Liberty's golden torch. "I think this time we'll just leave it alone."

As he spoke, hundreds of thousands of visitors swarmed Lady Liberty and her home, Liberty Island, a short ferry ride from Lower Manhattan and uninhabited save for the 127-year-old woman who symbolizes freedom, from her shimmering torch to the broken chain at her feet.

As the first tourist boat of the day circled the island and visitors got a close-up view of Liberty's strong jaw and steady-gazing eyes, they fell quiet. Many lowered their cellphones, stopped taking pictures, and just stared.

"She's beautiful," said Rebecca Hines of Byron, Ill. "This isn't something you can capture on an iPad."

"Pictures don't do it justice at all," said her 16-year-old son, Alex.

Officials said it was literally a round-the-clock effort to get the statue reopened in time for Independence Day, which had been their goal since Superstorm Sandy sent a record 14-foot storm surge over much of New York. Lady Liberty survived unscathed, but her home was trashed. The ferry docks were splintered, the electrical and sewage systems were destroyed, and the walkways and railings surrounding her pedestal were a total loss.

The National Park Service expected to spend about $56 million to fix Liberty Island and adjacent Ellis Island, home to an immigration museum that remains closed. But the cost soared to $77 million as officials sought to use materials that they hope will prevent the next monstrous storm from damaging the islands' infrastructure.

"It was no small feat," National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said of the Liberty Island restoration, which included putting 53,000 new paving stones and 2,000 feet of granite in place.

The scramble paid off. Coveted tickets to visit the statue's crown, a climb of 354 stairs up a narrow, winding staircase, sold out months ago.

"It's worth it," said Bev Viger of Vancouver, Canada, who was visiting with her granddaughter, Makaela. They had scored crown tickets along with a friend, Danielle Williams, and weren't deterred by the hot, swampy day.

"It's spectacular, and it's the New York icon," Williams said. "And what better day to visit?"

As they began their climb, dignitaries and special guests gathered behind Lady Liberty for a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, whose guests mirrored the diverse masses the statue embraces. They included three schoolteachers from Kendallville, Ind., whose elementary school pupils sold lollipops to raise more than $400 to contribute to the statue's repair effort; and actor Dominic Chianese, best known for his role on "The Sopranos" but also an accomplished tenor who sang "God Bless America" to the crowd.

As he sang, clouds blew across the sky, creating an ever-changing palette of gray, white and blue against the striking green of the statue.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell paid tribute to the statue and also to the 19 firefighters killed Sunday in Arizona, breaking down in tears as she called the fallen men "a great reminder of the importance of first-responders" and urged Americans to remember them on Independence Day. Jewell wore a purple ribbon on her shirt to honor the firefighters.

Since the statue was dedicated in 1886, it has been closed several times. The last dozen years have been especially turbulent for Lady Liberty and for those who yearn to get close to her. Security concerns after the 2001 attacks prompted Liberty Island's closure for three years. The island reopened in 2004, but the statue was kept closed for another two years. In 2006, visitors were once again allowed inside, but not up to the crown. It finally was reopened on July 4, 2009.

On Oct. 29, 2011, the statue was closed for one year for upgrades to its interior. It reopened a year later, only to close after one day because of Sandy.

"This is a work of art that became a symbol of resilience," said Adrian Benepe of the Trust for Public Land. "It's a highly important symbol, not just for New York but for the world."

Gil Thibault, visiting from Laguna Beach with his wife, Judy, and daughter, Sandee, agreed.

"It's not one of the seven or eight wonders of the world," he said, "but it should be."

tina.susman@latimes.com

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