At your liberty: Statue of Liberty to reopen July 4

On a sun-splashed afternoon that marked the second day of summer, I joined a diverse throng of men, women and children, all waiting to board the Staten Island Ferry — a hulking orange vessel that provides free commuter service between Manhattan and its neighboring borough about five miles to the south.

But many on the boat were tourists headed out for a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, scheduled to reopen July 4 after being closed to visitors for more than eight months.

As uniformed crews readied the nearly 300-foot-long John F. Kennedy for the 25-minute excursion, watercolor skies and wispy clouds framed the city's renowned skyline, and soft breezes enveloped New York Harbor.

In due course, we were on our way, a flock of seagulls chasing the boat and waves churning foam in our wake. I could see why riding the ferry is considered one of the best visitor experiences in New York.

About midway to our destination, passengers began gesturing excitedly toward a figure in the distance. From my perch on a deck, I could make out a somewhat hazy object that eventually came into focus: Lady Liberty in all her glory, complete with that spiked, seven-point halo and torch held aloft in her right hand.

Suddenly, teens were holding up iPhones. Families posed near the ferry's bow to snap photos. Couples held up their babies. And as the statue slowly passed from sight, there were cheers and applause.

Even a glimpse of the symbol of freedom, seemed to evoke hope. As the nation grapples with tough questions about democracy amid surveillance revelations, wartime drone strikes, terrorism and immigration challenges, America may need what Lady Liberty represents now more than ever.

'Enlightening the World'

The "Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World" was a gift from France that was dedicated in October 1886.

"There's no question it's symbolic. [The July 4 reopening is] like the return of an old friend," said George Fertitta, CEO of NYC & Company, the city's official marketing and tourism organization. "It's a guardian symbol of optimism, diversity and strength."

Designed by sculptor Frederic Bartholdi and built with the assistance of Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, the statue is made of pure copper sheeting. The only exception is the flame of the torch, which is coated in gold leaf. Dressed in a robe, holding a stone tablet and standing at just over 151 feet, Lady Liberty boasts a stonework pedestal and star-shaped foundation that boosts its height by another 154 feet.

Generations of American immigrants — about 12 million, according to records — saw the statue when arriving at nearby Ellis Island for processing from 1892 until the mid-1950s.

The statue was designated a national monument in 1924, and restored for its centennial celebration on July 4,1986. It had undergone a nearly yearlong $30 million makeover, including new steps to the crown, easier wheelchair access and other safety upgrades, when superstorm Sandy disrupted plans for the unveiling last October.

The storm brought high winds and rising water to Liberty Island, a 12-acre expanse south of Lower Manhattan.

While the statue's hardy iron framework enabled it to withstand the storm's intense winds, its island home was in the path of a massive storm surge that left nearly 75 percent of the area underwater. Utilities and a backup generator were all destroyed, according to National Park Service officials. The docks sustained major damage, and brick walkways were uprooted.

With emergency funds provided by Congress, contractors have worked to repair and replace the docks on Liberty Island, as well as the interiors of several park structures.

Additionally, security screening facilities and other equipment officials said was necessary for "safe operations" were put in place. Officials have estimated that all the work could cost as much as $59 million.

Tighter security

On Independence Day, visitors will once again have access to Liberty Island, including the grounds and the statue. Ellis Island remains closed to the public because of damage from Sandy, as is the Immigration Museum on the island.

"We are delighted that Lady Liberty will once again be open to the public," said David Luchsinger, the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island superintendent.