National Geographic News

Johnna Rizzo

National Geographic

Published December 26, 2013

Lady in Waiting

The Statue of Liberty in pieces, with framework around robes and foot.
Photograph courtesy US Library of Congress, National Geographic

On October 29, 2012, superstorm Sandy barreled toward New York City. Liberty and Ellis Islands, two relatively tiny pieces of land huddled together in the city's harbor, were dangerously exposed.

That's the peril of being American icons sitting in New York Harbor. It makes them beacons. It also makes them vulnerable.

The National Park Service team responsible for the joint monument had battened down the hatches and sandbagged the islands against a storm surge predicted to reach 6 to 11 feet. Then they'd boarded up the windows and evacuated both islands.

When Superintendent David Luchsinger and his team arrived on Tuesday morning, October 30, to assess the storm's damage, 75 percent of Liberty Island was under water. The only thing not covered was Liberty and her pedestal.

All of Ellis Island was under water—in some areas as much as eight feet.

"It was total destruction: windows blown out, doors blown out. The walkways were ripped up, all the basements were completely flooded. One dock was completely decimated, and the other one was pretty well destroyed," says Luchsinger.

"But while it was a very sad, sad day for us, we quickly realized it was also an opportunity to make this a more sustainable park. We began that day formulating our plans."

Cleanup started the next day and took about two months—the team working at first out of the back of a U-Haul with a couple of space heaters inside. Some structures, like Luchsinger's superintendent's house, weren't rebuilt. "I have the dubious distinction of being the last resident of Liberty Island," he says.

Two Become One

Liberty and Ellis Islands—both sitting ducks in a harbor vulnerable to rising sea levels—are linked in modern melting pot mythology, but their origins are distinct.

France proposed giving a statue to honor the United States in 1865, though the statue wasn't completed for 21 years. The gift celebrated the Revolutionary War alliance of the two countries and was France's way of supporting the ideals of freedom the new country espoused. Sculptor Auguste Bartholdi was also looking to create a sculpture to rival the Colossus of Rhodes. In 1871 he handpicked Lady Liberty's home, a 12-acre island in New York Harbor—all the better to see her.

Ellis Island's origins were less poetic. In the early 1800s, a fort was built on the island to defend the harbor and to keep the British from conscripting American soldiers. In the late 1880s, long after such dangers had passed, New Yorkers began complaining loudly about the risks posed by the 10,000 pounds of ammunition still housed at the fort, so it was converted into an office for processing immigrants entering the United States. Ellis Island's second life as a way station to the American dream began in 1892, six years after Liberty opened her doors.

Five years later Ellis's wooden edifice was destroyed by fire. The building rose again, built of hardier stuff—red brick trimmed in limestone and granite—and reopened in 1900.

On an average day, Ellis Island workers processed 8,000 to 10,000 immigrants. The record of 11,747 people was set on April 17, 1907. More than 12 million immigrants passed through over its two decades of operation.

In 1925, U.S. consulates took over the job of immigration. Ellis Island became by turns a deportation center, U.S. Public Health Service hospital, a Coast Guard facility, and an internment camp for Germans, Italians, and Japanese during World War II. By 1954, the U.S. government had run out of uses for Ellis Island and closed it. "People were coming into places other than New York, and the immigration laws were looser," says Luchsinger. It didn't reopen as a historic site until the 1990s. Only 17 ceiling tiles had been lost in the interim.

The Statue of Liberty was declared a national monument in 1924. In 1965, Ellis Island was folded into the Park Service site.

Ironlike Lady

On June 17, 1885, the Statue of Liberty arrived on American soil as 300 copper pieces packed in 214 crates aboard the French ship Isère, which nearly sank in rough seas while crossing the Atlantic. Liberty remained as unassembled parts for nearly a year as her grand pedestal—the largest concrete pour in the U.S. before the Hoover Dam—was completed.

Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, creator of the famed Eiffel Tower, built an internal steel framework for the statue, securing her from the inside.

Liberty's copper exterior oxidized within a few decades, turning the statue green. But green is good. The layer of oxidation protects against further corrosion, so her guardians don't scrape it off. The lighter color now visible on her belly and cheek are the result of a partial sandblasting from superstorm Sandy.

She's got other survival tricks up her voluminous sleeves. Only about the thickness of two stacked pennies, she can sway about four inches, give or take. She needs to bend to avoid breaking in the harbor winds.

Only one thing has daunted Liberty since she was dedicated on October 28, 1886: An ammunition blast in 1916 knocked off her torch arm, impaling it on one of the rays of her crown. The arm was repaired and bolted back in place. The torch viewing deck has been permanently closed ever since.

Guarding Liberty

Statue of Liberty National Monument's former Superintendent David Luchsinger has a disaster-filled resume. With the National Park Service for 36 years, he volunteered to work Park Service lands in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

He was in New York for Sandy. Ditto for Hurricane Irene. He spent 1991's Hurricane Gloria and the nor'easter that followed at NPS lands on Fire Island—after which he spent two weeks canoeing over flooded land to his office.

He was also in NYC for September 11. That night, he grabbed a NPS boat and two Park Service rangers and closed down New York Harbor at the Verrazano Bridge. The Coast Guard, who would normally do the job, he says "was occupied with everything else that was going on."

Those experiences worked in Liberty's and Ellis's favor.

"One of the first things I did here—in fact on my first day on the job at Liberty and Ellis—I was supposed to sign off on a project agreement that would have called for our historic Ellis Island museum collection to be moved. I refused to do it and said, 'Unfortunately, you've picked a guy from Louisiana, and you're asking me to put my invaluable collection in a 50-year floodplain and I'm not going to do that,' " he says.

The project would have moved the collection to a building that flooded up to two feet deep during Sandy. "We would have lost our collection."

Tomorrow's Monument

Other problems weren't as easy for Luchsinger to circumvent.

A year to the day before Sandy hit, Liberty was closed for safety renovations and upgrades and to install a handicapped elevator that would go all the way up to the observation deck. Liberty reopened on October 28, 2012. It was open for exactly one day.

None of those upgrades were damaged during Sandy, but the energy infrastructure of both islands—HVAC and other mechanical systems, all housed in basements—were destroyed. "We've made this a very sustainable park—something it wasn't beforehand, but we've learned from experience," says Luchsinger. For example, the electric system of Liberty was moved to the second floor of an old incinerator building, well above flood level, and it was operational in time to reopen the statue to the public on July 4, 2013.

Ellis Island followed on October 28, 2013. There's little in the way of exhibits or videos at this stage, even the computer room where visitors can look up family members who immigrated through Ellis Island is still shuttered. The current visitor experience on Ellis is remarkably similar to what an immigrant might have seen: the baggage room and, upstairs, the great hall where the huddled masses awaited their personal interviews. It won't reopen in full until May.

"The only reason we're open on Ellis is because during restoration, the restorers put back the old radiator system. We were never going to use it, because we had a modern air handler system, but that got washed out," notes Luchsinger. "The only reason we're open is the old steam heat radiators."

Future Tense?

Does Luchsinger worry about the future of Liberty and Ellis Islands because of their exposure to the sea? "Sandy is by far the worst catastrophe the park has ever faced. We'd be foolish not to expect that things are going to be worse, given sea-level rise.

"Are we going to be ready for any eventuality? Absolutely not," he adds. "Anyone who thinks that we can prepare for everything that Mother Nature will throw our way is wrong. But I think we're very well prepared."

So is it Lady Liberty versus Mother Nature, then?

"Yeah, well, Lady Liberty, I don't think she competes with Mother Nature. She's built to move, to sway in the breeze. So if Mother Nature decides to blow a breeze our way, I think it's us against Mother Nature. Lady Liberty knows how to live with Mother Nature better than we do. Maybe we need to start rolling with the punches as well."

Gauging a Goliath

A park ranger stands below the upraised heel of the Statue of Liberty's foot.
Photograph courtesy Wide World Photos INC., National Geographic

"Oswald E. Camp, who is superintendent of the statue for the National Parks Service, is 6 feet 1 and ½ inches tall, but appears dwarfed by contrast with Liberty's right foot, which measures 11 feet between the back edge of the upraised heel and the surface on which the foot rests," read the notes accompanying this August 1937 photo in the National Geographic archives.

"When the statue was displayed in Paris before being shipped to America, the copper plates of the sole were left off and the opening was used as the entrance to the statue."

Carrying a Torch

The Statue of Liberty's torch projecting from a small white makeshift building on a fairground.
Photograph courtesy US Library of Congress, National Geographic

Still a decade away from completion, the Statue of Liberty's hand holding the torch was displayed at the United State's centennial celebration in Philadelphia to drum up donations.

Creating a Colossus

Slatted framework of the book-holding hand and sleeve of the Statue of Liberty.
Photograph courtesy US Library of Congress, National Geographic

Sculptor Auguste Bartholdi—second from right—constructs the gift from France to America in his Paris studio. Bartholdi named her "Liberty Enlightening the World."

Protecting Liberty

Close-up of the Statue of Liberty's face and crown.
Photograph courtesy Polinske, AL, National Geographic

"Although 'Miss Liberty' is not the lipstick type, she gets plenty of it, but in the wrong places. Lady visitors feel obliged to scrawl names and hometowns in the greasy stuff all over the statue. It is hard to remove," read the notes accompanying this September 1946 head shot of Lady Liberty. Today, because of visitor volume and fears about sustaining a glut of foot traffic, only about 14 percent of those who come to Liberty Island get to go up to the crown.

Bob Manring
Bob Manring

Maybe, at the rate global warming is going it is predicted to have a 5 foot rise in water levels by 2020. Now that would do some serious damage... 

Christian Duerig
Christian Duerig

Whatever will happen, the Statue of Liberty is the dream of the world. It will be rebuilt if...

I believe in liberty. And you ?

Crigs from Berne, Switzerland

David Sneed
David Sneed

If the sea level is rising and these two islands will be flooded, why is Cornell University building a $2 billion tech center on Roosevelt Island? It is also at sea level. And for that matter why did NYC solicit colleges for this project? 

Jerry Fisher
Jerry Fisher

I'm uncertain where Ms. Rizzo found her information regarding the Black Tom explosion of 1916. 

While Liberty was damaged by flying shrapnel and suffered some popped rivets and bent supports, her torch and right arm were never dislodged and impaled on the rays of her crown. However, the caretakers of Liberty seized the opportunity to restrict access to the torch after the Black Tom explosion as Liberty was already becoming congested with visitors even in the early years of her existence. The damage Liberty suffered in no was as catastrophic as the public was led to believe but it gave the caretakers a ready-made excuse to close the torch to public access afterwards.

As for the Superstorm Sandy flooding at Liberty Island, a good deal more than just Liberty and her pedestal remained above the floodwaters. In fact, Fort Wood, the 11-point star-shaped structure into which the base, pedestal and statue were constructed withstood the storm well. 

I know in our modern age that too many people have tuned out anything worthwhile to watch reality drek television, but this is National Geographic -- I grew up with it and expect far better fact-checking and less pandering to the lowest common denominator or hyperbole. 

Shame on you National Geographic.

Paul M.
Paul M.

News Editors,

Deny this; YOU tell our kids they WILL be doomed but science has NEVER agreed beyond "could be" so find your readers just one single IPCC consensus that agrees as YOU do that it WILL be a crisis. 

Renounce the CO2 exaggeration now before history denounces you lazy copy and paste so called "journalists". 

30 years of needless CO2 panic was a war crime for history to judge and you news repeaters were the guards in the watch towers.

Nice work girls.

The only crisis you remaining climate blame believers have to worry about is your grand kids explaining to their kids how you easily condemned them at the mere grunt of a main-scream media headline of "consensus". 

Kim James Yarwood
Kim James Yarwood

Well, I guess tourists could still boat-ride around her feet until she erodes into the ocean like the Colossus of Rhodes. Maybe, if the auto industry limited it's sales of GAS GUZZLING Trucks and S.U.V.'s, global warming might slow down a bit. Then the FACTUAL science folks with real data could ban corporate Sand-Tar Oil extraction, Coal burning, Fracking and all of the rest of those "RIGHTEOUS" greedy wrongs.

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

"Will Climate Change Swamp the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island?"  No, but AGW hysteria will swamp reason and make people look incredibly foolish.

david auburn
david auburn

The numerous reports calling for action now seem pretty specific to me already. If you want to wait until things are so far gone the out come is inevitable then you can tell your kids what ever you want when the water reaches their nostrils.

Paul M.
Paul M.

It's a thirty year old consensus of nothing beyond just: "could be" a cataclysmic climate crisis. 

Find us one single IPCC warning that says it "will be" a crisis or is "inevitable" or "eventual".

YOU cannot tell my kids it WILL be a "THREAT TO THE PLANET" until science does. "Could be" isn't good enough to condemn our own children.

jim adams
jim adams

@Paul M.

Shame on you for not looking at quality scientific global warming information. It is out there.

A major problem (of you and all climate deniers) is your: "Let's wait and see if it's serious" conversationis. Some of the "serious" things are what we call "tipping points" The "tipping point" on a playground sliding board is the moment after you let go and start sliding. Agter that point, you can say all you want: "hey, this is too serious -- i wanna go back to the top". It won't change anything and if you see glass on the board or nails at the bottom -- you WILL plow into them. You gave up your ability to choose when you let go and started sliding.


One of the most serious tipping points in global warming is the melting of the Arctic Ice Sheet. Ice, being white, reflects most of the sunlight back up and out into space again before it turns to heat. When the ice is gone, the water is darker and absorbs the heat of the sun. The more sunlight which gets to the water, the warmer the water gets -- until it is warm enough to melt ice. The same holds true on the Arctic Sea shores -- the more ice and snow which melts, the more solar heat is absorbed by the land.

Once that ice and snow is mostly melted, we've passed a tipping point . Go to: You'll find that there is methane clathrate -- methane ice stored under the permafrost and under the Arctic Sea bottom. . When the clathrate melts (as it is starting to), it releases methane as a gas. Methane gas is 20 to 25 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2. the site says: "We CAN reduce our CO2 emissions from fossil fuels but we COULD NOT reduce methane emissions once they get started. These huge natural forces would take over and change our world in double-quick time. "


read Peter D Ward, The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps. DrWard is a paleontologist who searches thru the strata of our deep past, seeking other global warming events. There have been a bunch. Google Permian extinction to see the most serious global warming event -- about 98% extinction of all life. Read thru several chapters as he compares past Global Warming events with our present one. He says we are warming our planet faster than any events of the past and as such -- the natural dynamic balancing can't keep up and things are going out of balance.


Then there's increased soot from out of control wildfires in the US and Russia which are turning the Greenland Glacier black ( and the rate of melt is increasing rapidly. See also: It turns out that surface melt on Greenland and Antarctic glaciers melts out cracks in the ice and Nat Geo talks about a flow to the interior of the glacier which was larger than Niagara Falls for a time, Liquid water at the base of a glacier acts like a lubricant, speeding the glacier on it's down hill journey. For what it's worth, go to YouTube and watch glaciers move. Time lapse photography records them wriggling and squirming all over the place.

Also glacier related: warmed seas are causing the sea shelf ice to break free of the land faster than ever before. Normally, this sea ice holds tight to the land and acts like a plug in the glacial channel to the sea. With out that ice shelf, glaciers speed up on their journey off the land


And then there's CO2. Peter Ward says there's geological evidence during the last serveral hundred million years that CO2 increased and decreased along with global warming which normally took several hundred years to max out.

CO2 keeps heat on the Earth. If there were no CO2, our planet would be an ice ball.

So CO2 acts like a blanket does for you on a cold night. With a good blanket, you will stay more or less comfortable. With a thinner blanket you'll be too cold, and with a thicker blanket, you'll be too warm.

Adding more CO2 is like adding a thicker blanket. It keeps more heat in. Adding methane is like adding a very, very thick blanket, and it rapidly gets hotter than we can handle.

With CO2 around 280 ppm, our biosphere keeps it in a dynamic equilibrium -- unless something happens which increases or decreases the CO2 too rapidly for the biosphere to handle. Human activities are doing just that. CO2 has increased 120 ppm in about 150 years, and it is increasing ever more rapidly. Unless we make changes in our behaviors -- world wide, we will reach 500 ppm and then 600 ppm probably in our children's and grandchildren's lifetimes

And that is beyond serious. That is deadly

These should be common topics of conversation as we act as a planetary civilization to right the wrongs of our world in a timely fashion. It's not happening. And that too is beyond serious -- and that too is deadly.

George Roberts
George Roberts

@Paul M. We have gone beyond "could be" to "very likely." Science is not about certainty, it is about probability. Hypothyses aren't proven to be true, they can, however, be falsified.

Warning the world about the problems of global warming is not condemning our grandchildren, doing nothing would be condemning them.

Paul M.
Paul M.

@Kim James Yarwood Oil does not feed denial, science's "consensus of MAYBE and never WILL be a crisis" is what feeds all denial.

Believers should be demanding that science end this costly debate to SAVE THE PLANET now with a real warning for a real crisis otherwise any chance at CO2 mitigation is impossible.

Phillip Noe
Phillip Noe

@Roger Bird  More baseless claptrap?  You must be posting your garbage out of ignorance.  Hate to think that you willing post disinformation for the fossil fuel industry for fees.  And I doubt they'd pay anything for your nonsense.

Paul M.
Paul M.

@david auburn That's all it takes for you to condemn my kids and grand kids to a climate crisis? 30 years of "maybe" is good enough for you remaining believers but real progressives need certainty from science before we usher our children to the greenhouse gas ovens.

George Roberts
George Roberts

@Paul M. @david auburn How is warning the world about the problem condemning the children and grandchildren? Doing nothing when we know what to do is condemning them.

If you are waiting for certainty from science, you will be waiting forever. Knowing that  the problems associated with global warming are very likely to happen is enough to do something now. The more we do, and the sooner we do it, the less damage there will be.

Rocky Mountain
Rocky Mountain

@Roger Bird Tuning this into a partisan issue makes you look incredibly ridiculous and shows your point is based on politics, not science. 


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