Report from the Field: Sandy's Impact on Ellis Island

Posted on: November 30th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

Written by Roberta Lane, Senior Field Officer & Attorney, Boston Field Office

The storm surged onto the South Side of Ellis Island, depositing debris and flooding the basements of the historic hospital and administration buildings.

One month after Hurricane Sandy barreled into the East Coast, repair and restoration continues apace at homes, religious structures, downtowns, parks, historic sites, and beyond. In particular, the damage at Ellis Island (one of our National Treasures) provides a snapshot of one kind of post-Sandy reality.

Our National Treasure and America’s 11 Most Endangered Places listings for Ellis Island focused on the 30 vacant buildings on the island to highlight their plight. These buildings have stood the test of time while they wait for a reuse. We were already concerned about their condition, though, so early reports that the stormwaters surged right over the island distressed us.

Indeed, Hurricane Sandy flooded through Ellis Island with a vengeance. Today, the National Park Service is working heroically, in awful conditions, to assess and repair the damage, and we are working with them and Save Ellis Island to try to ensure a brighter future for the south side of the island, a place that has endured so much.

The following slideshow features my photos from a staff trip to the south side of Ellis Island in spring 2012. Consider it a virtual tour, one that might deepen this site's significance for you:

Since the storm, we’ve met with the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island to learn about the current conditions and coordinate our assistance. Of note:

  • One vacant building -- the Ferry Building -- was restored a few years ago by the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island. The storm blew out windows and doors at the Ferry Building and inundated the exhibits and interiors inside.
  • At the vacant US Public Health Service buildings, boarding meant to protect windows was blown out and water got into the lower areas.
  • The grand Main Building had basement flooding, destroying the island’s mechanical systems and most other parts of its infrastructure.
  • The grand Immigration Hall and most exhibits at the Main Building were unaffected.

The National Park Service is finishing its assessments and stabilization of the many units of the National Parks of New York Harbor that were damaged in the storm. We plan to work with our partners to connect preservation professionals from the field with the Park Service’s experts, as needed. And we are building a broad coalition of agencies and organizations to help support the work ahead.

Ellis Island stands for a complex and wonderful American ideal: that we should garner the benefits of major change through immigration, while always ensuring our nation’s fundamental stability and constancy. This concept of well-managed change is also, of course, a value at the heart of historic preservation -- one we hope to demonstrate at this important site.

Post-storm photos are at the National Park Service's Sandy Response Flickr site. Also check out the National Park Service’s fascinating Facebook page, NPS Hurricane Sandy Response. Ellis Island was my first Instagram adventure. Find the National Trust Instagram at @presnation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

National Treasures, Restoration, Slideshows

2 Responses

  1. Brian Baston

    December 1, 2012

     Hi my name is Brian Baston, I am writing you because I am a mason with nearly 20 years exp, I took a masonry course when I was in high school for 2 years. I was working for a masonry company for 12+ years, until 2012.  The last 3 years working with this company they always had me working alone, on jobs all by myself. April 2012 my wife and I decided maybe I should open my own company, so I did Baston Masonry. I work alone and actually I have done quit well, the biggest thing is to get my name out there. These are the things I would like to focus on,
    Historical masonry,
    Brick and stone repointing, 
    Stone repair, 
    Masonry flashing, 
    Mounment cleaning, and repair
    Refacing fireplaces,
    Tile work, 
    New masonry, 
    Stone walls,
    Out door fireplace,
    Brick walls,
    Grave stone repairs
    I take great pride in my work, I love doing my job, which not many can say. I am a great craftsman, and you will notice I am very clean, and well organized. I am not out to make millions, just to stay busy and pay the bills. I am willing to work with my customers, so we can get the job done as cheap as possible.
      I am fully insured, I do work alone for now so I do not carry workers comp insurance, I do plan to have it in 2013. 
     Best regards, Brian Baston

  2. Julie Ann Collier

    December 6, 2012

    I am a graduate student concluding studies in historic preservation and urban planning. Ellis Island is an interesting place and I enjoyed reading the post about its recovery post Sandy. As a planner with historic preservation in mind, I am always thinking about how to conserve our cultural and historic resources while building communities that will last into the future. I recently read an Op Ed piece in the New York Times regarding sustainable cities and Sandy’s impact on lower Manhattan ( This piece discussed how the sustainability movement is being challenged from within the industry. Communities must now be resilient rather than just sustainable; evidence from Sandy’s impacts on one of the world’s largest sustainable neighborhoods – lower Manhattan – is proof. Resilient communities means not only resilient buildings but also resilient residents. How will everything weather a natural distaster?

    The idea of a resilient community not only implies conscientious behavior when it comes to future planning but also uncertainty as to what may happen. At least with resilience planning there is a concession that bad things do happen and we must be ready to adapt when they do.

    Historic preservation and city planning both benefit from proactively looking ahead in order to mitigate disastrous issues, such as inappropriately losing a historic resource or building inadequate capital projects. But I wonder how to best plan for historic resource resiliency without interrupting the character and integrity of that resource. Is it possible to form a resiliency plan for historic preservation? Or, for the sake of integrity, should we just hope for the best when it comes to preserving our historic resources through natural distasters?

    If resiliency planning is feasible, is it policy-based planning – such as creating a chain of command in the face of an event and putting into place a set of plans for differing scenarios? Or is it physically-based action – NOW – that retrofits our historic resources to withstand a natural distaster? I’d imagine it would have to be a combination of the two in most cases.

    Regardless, acknowledging a shortcoming is the first step in fixing it. Perhaps preservation efforts after natural disasters would be easier if we were to consider developing resiliency plans for them. Or if disaster management plans are in place for historic resources in a city, perhaps the local government could be more vocal about those plans so that residents and building owners could create resiliency plans for themselves – particularly where documentation and background information is necessary. Something as simple as copying key documents, such as photos, written histories, and historic documents, and keeping them in a waterproof, fall-proof, crush-proof – disaster-proof – container and location would save a lot of time, energy and heartache in the face of another hurricane like Sandy, or any other natural disaster. I am sure managers of major historic resources have some plans in place such as this, but what about local governments of smaller municipalities? Minimal costs could produce invaluable results.