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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – The island that ushered millions of immigrants into the United States is receiving visitors for the first time since superstorm Sandy’s surge gushed into New York Harbor.
The halls and buildings of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum reopened to the public Monday morning, almost exactly a year after the storm.
“It was just so heartwarming to see visitors step onto this island,” said David Luchsinger, the superintendent for Ellis and the neighboring Statue of Liberty. He was at the ferry slip to welcome the first arrivals.
Visitors are once again able to tour the main floor of the museum and the great hall where doctors performed medical exams in what was once America’s largest and most active federal immigration processing station.
Visitors stepping off the first returning boat included Cathy Scheer, of Riverside, Calif., who started a business trip early so she could visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Scheer’s forebears came through Ellis from Scotland and Germany, so she was excited at “the chance to walk in my ancestors’ shoes.”
“It’s like walking through their history,” she told CBS 2′s Elise Finch. “I can only just guess on how they must have felt when they came over from Germany.”
“It’s one thing to learn about it in a classroom; it’s another thing to see it in person, to see what actually happened a long time ago,” said Xane Fletcher, of Toronto. “It’s really, really cool.”
Others such as Karen Bisson from Vancouver, Wash., were touched to be back on Ellis Island.
“We can recover from the things that happen,” Bisson told 1010 WINS’ Steve Sandberg.
“This is where people entered America,” Bisson told Finch. “This is where they came in and started their lives new and fresh. It’s just very emotional.”
Ferry tours to the island stopped, and overall harbor cruise business was down.
“We saw a drop of 50 percent in ridership as a result of Ellis Island being closed,” said Rafael Abreu of Statue Cruises. “So we’ll see a very large increase. All of our groups will come back, school groups especially.”
When Sandy hit New York Harbor, the surge of water swamped boilers and electrical systems and left the 27.5-acre island without power for months.
Bricks around the exterior of the island were ripped up, docks and a promenade were damaged, and a boat slammed into one of the buildings.
“It was gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to see everything that happened,” Luchsinger said.
But the National Park Service noted that much work still needs to be done, and all the restoration projects are not expected to be completed until May 1, 2014.
Heat is currently running through an oil boiler-and-radiator system, but more than 1 million photographs and other artifacts remain in storage while officials figure out how to regulate the radiators sufficiently.
Luchsinger hopes that can happen in about a month.
“It’s going to be about a half a million dollars worth of work to do and take us about two to four weeks to get done,” he told WCBS 880′s Alex Silverman.
Officials chose to reopen Ellis Island on Oct. 28 because it is the 127th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.
“This is where our country is illustrated at its best,” Luchsinger said. “We knew we had to get this place open for the people of the United States of America and the people of the world.”
Liberty Island also was flooded during Sandy. It reopened July 4 but was recently closed again during the partial federal government shutdown.
The Park Service said the total cost to repair both Islands is more than $77 million.
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