Bob Sonderman is director of the National Park Service's Museum Resource Center in Landover, Md. He unpacks one of the objects from Ellis Island, currently being stored at the Landover facility.
While many homeowners in the New York area are still struggling to deal with the flooding from Superstorm Sandy, so are two of the city's iconic islands: Liberty Island (home of Lady Liberty) and Ellis Island, the historic gateway to the U.S. for millions of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Liberty Island is set to reopen this summer to tourists, but Ellis Island still has a long way to go.
During the storm, a large wave went over the backside of Ellis Island, knocked out lower level windows and doors and flooded the basements of the island's main buildings.
Diana Pardue, the Chief of the Museum Division at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, explains all the HVAC, boilers and electrical lines need to be redone. Salt water and wiring don't mix.
Most of the museum's collection was on upper floors, away from the water. But everything below the water line was covered in silt.
Sending in the 'museum doctor'
At times like this, the National Park Service calls in Bob Sonderman. For most of the year, Bob Sonderman manages a museum storage facility in Prince George's County. But when duty calls, he can be on the road in a matter of hours.
"I pack my van full of everything I can possibly think of," he says. "I have big blower fans, I have a generator." He even brings his own gasoline, which in times of disaster, can be difficult to buy.
Sonderman is head of the National Park Service's Museum Emergency Response Team. And basically what an EMT does in a medical emergency, Sonderman does in a museum emergency. They've rescued artifacts after Hurricanes Isabel and Ivan, Katrina and the Gulf Oil Spill.
When Sonderman got to Ellis Island, he was shocked at the damage. "The initial response is Holy Cow! I didn't realize it was going to be this bad. All these museum objects were covered in gook and salty, ookey water, and they're still in the exhibit cases."
A display case of medical equipment used to examine incoming immigrants was knocked on its side, and filled with silt. The artifacts were metal, and would soon begin to rust. Sondermen ran out to his van, took out the crowbars, and cracked open the display cases to get these objects out.
"We're the best break in crew you've ever seen! " Sonderman brags, chuckling. "The longer you wait, the more in jeopardy the collection can become."
Moving to Maryland
The team sent the medical instruments to metals conservators in West Virginia. They froze all the wet documents, to stop mold growth. And everything else needed to be put by a fan to dry off. But, the island — and actually, a lot of New York City — didn't have power. In order to preserve the artifacts, they'd need a dry, stable environment — in other words, Sonderman's facility in Landover, Md.
More than a million items were painstakingly packed and shipped down on seven semi-trucks. Some of the most fragile things, like tape of oral histories, videos and X-rays of passengers as they came off the ships are in a different room. All the items are organized by the way they were exhibited or stored in the museum on Ellis Island, to make the return trip north as easy as possible. Sonderman says it will all go back someday.
Someday, but not anytime soon. At the end of January, President Obama signed the Sandy Recovery Act, designating $234 million to national parks impacted by the storm. There's still no running water, and no electricity on the island, and Diana Pardue says the museum will be closed for renovations through the rest of this year.
In the meantime, Sonderman says, the island's collection will stay in Maryland, until the job is done.
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