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Most years, 3.5 million people come to see the Statue of Liberty up close. But the island that's home to Lady Liberty is closed indefinitely because of a powerful blow from Superstorm Sandy. Liberty Island and nearby Ellis Island both suffered extensive flood damage. Today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made his first visit since the storm and so did NPR's Joel Rose.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Statue of Liberty looks perfect, like nothing happened, but Liberty Island is a mess: paving stones are missing, chunks of fence are washed away, docks and buildings are damaged from the floodwaters. The secretary of the interior got a firsthand look at some of that damage today. Lady Liberty and all the renovations withstood the power of Sandy, huh?
SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: Yep. She's standing there proud and defiant.
ROSE: Gee, that's right.
SALAZAR: She got a little sandblasted.
ROSE: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar got a walking tour of Liberty Island from Dave Luchsinger, the superintendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Luchsinger says the storm left the statue unscathed, including renovations to her crown that had just been finished when Sandy hit. Lady Liberty still lifts her lamp beside the golden door, but Luchsinger says the rest of Liberty Island was severely tempest-tossed.
DAVID LUCHSINGER: You folks would not have been able to walk around here the first couple of weeks. It was quite devastating.
ROSE: Luchsinger says the National Park Service has done a lot of work already to clear out debris from around the statue's pedestal. Still, there is plenty left to do on Liberty Island and its neighbor Ellis Island. Historical artifacts and exhibits in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum survived the storm intact, but Luchsinger says underground flooding destroyed a lot of the island's infrastructure.
LUCHSINGER: Our HVAC system, our electrical systems were totally submerged. They're going to have to be repaired and/or replaced. We have some structural things. Obviously, our walkway is a big part of it. We have to make it safe for people to walk around here. That's got to be repaired. We have to have both docks either repaired or - and/or replaced.
ROSE: The Park Service says these two islands alone will need $59 million worth of repairs. Add in the damage at other nearby national parks - Gateway National Recreation Area and Fire Island National Seashore - and the total rises to more than 200 million. Interior Secretary Salazar says the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island may reopen in phases as repairs are completed.
SALAZAR: The statue itself, the pedestal, the monument is in good shape. It's just a matter of working through as quickly as we can and try to get enough safety measures in place so we're protecting the public so then we can allow visitation here again.
ROSE: Salazar didn't make any promises about when the park would open. Privately, Park Service staff say they're hoping to reopen in some capacity by next summer. But there's one feature of this island that may never be the same that's a handful of low, brick houses on the back side of the island. One of those houses is where park superintendent Dave Luchsinger lived year-round with his family, until the flooding from Sandy.
LUCHSINGER: We lost pretty much everything that was in the house. We were able to save a few pieces of furniture. We won't be living here anymore, and probably, nobody will be living here anymore. So at least, I'll be able to say I was the last one to stay here.
ROSE: Dave Luchsinger says those houses will probably have to be torn down. For now, Luchsinger is staying with his mother-in-law in New Jersey, but he says he still thinks of Liberty Island as home. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.