A large crowd gathered for the holiday and ribbon-cutting ceremony at Liberty Island with federal officials and New York's mayor. Lines stretched blocks long for the boat, which left from Battery Park in Manhattan starting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.
Rodney and Judy Long, of Charlotte, N.C., were the first people in line for the boat called Lady Liberty. They couldn't get tickets to climb up to the top of the statue, but they were just glad to be there for the big reopening, they said.
"It's perfect timing for it to reopen. It's really a symbol for what the country is all about," Rodney Long said.
Some repairs to brick walkways and docks are still underway, but much of work has been completed since Sandy swamped most of the 12 acres of the national landmark.
The statue was spared in the fall storm, but Lady Liberty's island took a serious beating. Railings broke, docks and paving stones were torn up and buildings were flooded. The storm destroyed electrical systems, sewage pumps and boilers. Hundreds of National Park Service workers from as far away as California and Alaska spent weeks cleaning mud and debris.
Visitors to Lady Liberty went through security on lower Manhattan after city officials criticized an earlier plan to screen them at neighboring Ellis Island, which endured far worse damage to its infrastructure and won't be open to the public anytime soon. The damage to both islands was $59 million.
Sandy made landfall one day after the statue's 126th birthday, flooding most of the 12 acres she stands upon with water that surged as high as 8 feet. Lady Liberty herself was spared, but the surrounding grounds on Liberty Island took a beating.
"People will have, more or less, the same access to Liberty Island that they had before," said John Warren, a spokesman for the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
The ceremony Thursday will include remarks by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others. It will close with a ribbon-cutting and performance by singer and actor Dominic Chianese, best known as Corrado "Junior" Soprano on the HBO series "The Sopranos."
A gift from France, the statue was conceived to symbolize the friendship between the two countries and their shared love of liberty. It was dedicated in 1886 and welcomes about 3.5 million visitors every year.
People who purchased tickets in advance can also look out over New York Harbor from the statue's crown, which reopened after a long hiatus one day before Sandy hit and was forced to close again due to the storm. The crown had been off-limits for a year during a $30 million upgrade to fire alarms, sprinkler systems and exit routes.
Security screening for visitors will be held in lower Manhattan after city officials criticized an earlier plan to screen them at neighboring Ellis Island, which endured far worse damage to its infrastructure and won't be open to the public anytime soon.
Home to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the island still doesn't have working electricity, sewage systems or telephone lines, Warren said.
The museum showcases the stories of the millions of immigrants who disembarked there to start their lives as Americans. Its historical documents and artifacts survived the storm unscathed, but more than 1 million items were transported to storage facilities because it was impossible to maintain the climate-controlled environment needed for their preservation.
Park officials would not provide a projected reopening date for Ellis Island.
For tourists like Davide Fantinelli, an 18-year-old from Italy, the reopening comes a bit too late. Fantinelli will already be back home by July 4th, but he and his parents managed to catch a glimpse of the statue from the deck of a water taxi.
The sight of it was one he'll never forget.
"Because it's liberty," Fantinelli said. "It means freedom - of this great nation."