The island that ushered millions of immigrants into the United States received visitors Monday for the first time since Superstorm Sandy.
The halls and buildings of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum reopened to the public nearly a year after the storm. Sandy swamped boilers and electrical systems and left the 27.5-acre island without power for months.
"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.
"This is an icon," he said, speaking of the island and its role in the nation's diversity. "It's what this country is all about."
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. She works for a company that teaches school bus drivers.
Scheer's forebears came through Ellis from Scotland and Germany, so she was excited at "the chance to walk in my ancestors' shoes."
She and a colleague had heard about the storm damage, so "we're so happy it's open today."
More than 1 million photographs and other Ellis Island artifacts remain in storage while buildings are fixed and upgraded.
"Yes, we are shy a little bit on exhibits and artifacts, but we're not shy on character, at all," Luchsinger said while standing in the former baggage room where millions of immigrants left their belongings.
Liberty Island reopened on July 4th, but was closed again during the partial federal government shutdown.
The storm flooded the Ellis museum up to the basement ceiling and knocked out electricity, phone service and the heating and air conditioning systems. It did not imperil exhibits upstairs, but they were moved because they could have deteriorated without climate control.
Luchsinger estimated the repairs will take 18 months and $21 million in all.
Heat is currently running through an oil boiler-and-radiator system; the exhibits will remain in storage while officials figure out how to regulate the radiators sufficiently.
Luchsinger hopes that can happen in about a month.