|Ivan looks out toward the Statue|
of Liberty from an unrestored
ward on Ellis Island's
I've made a handful of visits to the south side buildings to help inform my tours and represent the hospital accurately to visitors who aren't permitted to check out that side of the island. About a month ago, Ivan and I joined another volunteer to check out the infectious and contagious disease hospitals on Island Three, the southernmost portion of Ellis. Most of the furniture is gone, the windows are boarded up and plaster is falling from many of the walls, yet you can still get a sense of the enormity of place. So many lives were changed for the better within these rooms, the destiny of so many families and their descendants were altered forever.
We didn't know that day that it would likely be our last visit to the south side for quite some time, if ever. Hurricane Sandy mapped a direct course toward New York Harbor, putting both Ellis and Liberty Islands in peril against powerful storm surges. I worry about what's there, or more fittingly, what isn't there anymore, particularly when it comes to the hospital buildings.
Nothing has been said publicly about the south side or how severely the surges affected that part of the island. There certainly wasn't a lot there to prevent the water from overtaking the seawalls and flooding the already suffering hospital structures. The only visible preventative measures were the stabilization efforts NPS and Save Ellis Island made several years ago. Windows were blocked and vented to mitigate further decay inside, in hopes that funding would be available shortly for a thorough restoration. I doubt that anyone anticipated those measures would suffice in protecting the hospital from a storm of historic proportions. It's safe to say that many of those protective boards were blown away by wind or the surges, allowing the elements to invade the wards and hallways.
By my educated guess, it'll be several months before Ellis Island reopens to the public, and that will probably be limited to the Immigration Museum. It's the focal point of the island and it's important that it's up and running as soon as possible. Still, I worry that through lack of funding, the hospital buildings won't receive attention and will decay more rapidly than they had been before. A daunting restoration task will become near impossible, all due to neglect.
We can't afford to lose this fundamental portion of America's immigration story. Ultimately only about one percent of all immigrants landing at Ellis Island were refused entry to the US due to medical reasons, a testament to the dedication of the hospital staff. When you consider that about a hundred million Americans can trace their roots to someone who came here through Ellis, the impact of this hospital is enormous. Imagine how many of us wouldn't be here if the sick had simply been turned away.