Statue of Liberty reopens

Posted at 11:08 AM, Jul 04, 2013
and last updated 2013-07-04 14:48:13-04

By Josh Levs

(CNN) -- Lady Liberty reopened her doors to the huddled masses Thursday, a sign of recovery from Superstorm Sandy's devastation.

The Statue of Liberty's reopening was a big bright spot for an Independence Day dampened by soaking rains in much of the country and limited by the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester, which left numerous military bases without annual fireworks displays.

"It is hard to imagine a more appropriate or powerful way to commemorate our nation's founding than to reopen the Statue of Liberty, which is a symbol throughout the world of the freedom America cherishes," Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Liberty Island, which was hard hit by Superstorm Sandy in October just days after the site was closed for a year of renovations.

Thursday, crowds lined up to board ferries for one of the world's most iconic attractions.

"Today, Lady Liberty also stands as a sign of the resilience of the region -- an area so badly battered by Hurricane Sandy nine months ago, but that is on the rebound thanks to the sacrifices and dedication of so many people," Jewell said.

The site is a "huge economic engine," the Interior Department said. In 2011, 3.7 million visitors contributed $174 million to the New York area economy and supported more than 2,200 jobs.

"We've not only repaired damage from Sandy, but we've also taken steps to protect Liberty Island from major storms in the future, just as we're doing in the rest of our city," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

(Trivia alert: The statue is formally known as Liberty Enlightening the World.)

The first visitors arrived just before 9 a.m.

Peter Belvel of Phoenix, Arizona, made a stop on a tour of the country with his family. He said it was "amazing" to be at the site.

"It just makes your heart swell. ... People come from all over to see this and we're privileged to be here."

His young daughter, Katie Belvel, told CNN the visit "means a lot to me because it's our country and I love it."

The timing of the reopening "couldn't be better" for the New York City area, CNN Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri said. After seeing rainfall for eight of the past 10 days, the region should see dry, though hot, weather for July Fourth festivities.

Expect gorgeous weather in the Midwest, Javaheri said. But triple-digit heat still prevails in the Southwest. And those in the Southeast, Ohio River Valley, or much of the Eastern Seaboard can expect it to rain on their parades.

Mother Nature isn't the only reason some Americans are missing out on fireworks this year.

The sequester has left numerous military bases without the funds.

Fort Hood in Texas "managed to salvage its fireworks from dipping into profits earned from its recycling center," Time reports.

A Pittsburgh company offered to provide a show for free for military families at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, but the military turned down the offer, CNN affiliate KDKA reported.

Military officials said they did not have the funds to cover additional costs of putting on a big celebration, said George Zambelli, whose family business has provided the fireworks at Camp Lejeune before.

(Fun fact, or perhaps not so much fun: The overwhelming majority of fireworks are imported from China. Same with U.S. flags.)

More Americans are celebrating the holiday at home this year than last year, according to estimates by the motorist group AAA. About 41 million Americans are expected to travel at least 50 miles from home by Monday, down about 300,000 from those who made similar trips last year.

"Economic growth is not robust enough to offset the impact of the sequester and the effect of the end of the payroll tax cut on American families," said AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet.

While some will sing the national anthem -- like Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who belted out the "Star Spangled Banner" at Nationals Park in the District of Columbia -- others are focused more on what's going into their mouths, from grilled greatness and apple pie to preposterous amounts of hot dogs at the annual Coney Island hot dog eating contest.

Joey Chestnut snagged his seventh straight victory in the Coney Island event in Brooklyn, somehow scarfing down 69 franks in 10 minutes.

The women's division winner was Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, who devoured 36.75 franks in 10 minutes. It was less than last year, when she managed to ingest 45 dogs and buns. She was hoping to beat that record this year with 50.

President Obama, meanwhile, sought to bring the meaning of the holiday home.

In his weekly address, he thanked service members and called on Americans to keep striving for the ideals of "a small band of patriots" who declared American independence. "Two hundred thirty-seven years later, the United States -- this improbable nation -- is the greatest in the world," Obama said. "A land of liberty and opportunity."

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