Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Ellis Island: an update on Sandy's impact

Not long after Hurricane Sandy, I wrote about damage at Ellis Island and the uncertain future of the unrestored Public Health Service immigrant hospital on the south side of the island. Since then, the National Park Service has done a great deal of work to mitigate much of the storm's impact both there and at Liberty Island, but much more needs to be done before the islands can be reopened to the public.

Doors to the Ferry Building's dock were blown off
their hinges by Sandy's powerful surges.
One thing I didn't mention in my earlier report was Sandy's less-visible impact on the continuing mission of Save Ellis Island, the National Park Service's official non-profit partner working to bring the south side buildings back to use. SEI's first large-scale project on the island was the restoration of the Ferry Building that once was the last stop for immigrants who'd passed inspection and were on their way to New York City. Reopened to visitors in 2007, the building houses an exhibit about the public health aspects of the immigrant experience, the island's hospital facility and staff.

Lesser known to the public is the building's multipurpose space, which hosts SEI's professional development seminars for educators. Teachers learn more about the historic and current day immigration experience, as well as methods for bringing Ellis Island to life in their own classrooms. Participants also have the opportunity to tour the main museum and hospital buildings, experiences that help them provide a richer perspective to their students. In many cases, teachers even return with their classes for additional, age-appropriate lessons about various immigration issues.

Ellis Island's Ferry Building classroom took a big hit, too,
leaving unsalvageable equipment and learning materials.
When the storm surges blew off the doors leading from the Ferry Building to the dock, they also took much of SEI's ability to keep its education programs running. Displays and artifacts were knocked over and soaked by the rush of water, and while they can be repaired and restored, they're now inaccessible to the public. Learning materials and historical photographs were ruined and will need to be replaced. And until the island reopens, SEI can't offer students and educators the full impact of its learning programs, which also fund a good portion of the long-range restoration effort.

As a temporary measure, the organization is working to bring its seminars into classrooms in the New York/New Jersey area, so students will get at least partial benefit from learning about facets of Ellis Island. Still, SEI will take a financial hit from the situation, only broadening the harsh impact of the storm.

Ellis has a lengthy history of ups and downs, from its heyday in the early 20th century to the abandonment in mid century and the restoration of the iconic main building in the 1980s. I have every faith that it'll come back stronger than ever, but right now, the fate of the south side is still very much in question. If you'd like to help Save Ellis Island stay the course and continue its work, visit their website to learn about various donation opportunities, as well as their educational offerings. Ellis Island is an irreplaceable part of the story of America, and its New Jersey connection - the hospital - must continue to be told.


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