Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ellis Island's hospital after Sandy: an uncertain future

I've mentioned before that I'm a volunteer interpretive guide at Ellis Island, informing visitors about the Public Health Service hospital and medical inspections on the island. While I spend a fair amount of time at the visitor information desk for the National Park Service, my tours are a function of Save Ellis Island, the non-profit organization that's working to restore the former hospital complex and other buildings on the island. Their progress has been slow, as funding is precious and limited, but SEI has been able to renovate and reopen the island's Ferry Building to house the exhibit focusing on the work of PHS doctors and hospital staff. The hospital buildings themselves sit on the island's south side, unused, unrestored and closed to public visitation.

Ivan looks out toward the Statue
of Liberty from an unrestored
ward on Ellis Island's
south side.
The story of the Ellis Island hospital is relatively unknown, compared to the many tales of passage through the main Immigration Station. Of the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, an estimated ten percent were held back for further medical review and/or treatment for diseases that otherwise would prevent their entry into the United States. The treatable were sent to the island's general hospital or to the contagious and infectious disease wards, depending on their condition. Entire buildings were filled with patients suffering from measles, mumps and other contagious but not quarantinable diseases. An army of doctors, nurses, orderlies and attendants kept the whole place running, a virtual city of healing.

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.

According to Park Service sources, Liberty took a pretty heavy hit, and while the Statue and her pedestal stood strong, other buildings on the island are in shambles, as are the island's electrical systems. Ellis Island's main building, the Immigration Museum, fared relatively well, though first floor windows were blown out and several feet of water in the basement knocked out the electrical system. NPS offices in another building were flooded, as was the Ferry Building, but artifacts have been removed and placed into safekeeping.

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.

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