She’s back: Statue of Liberty reopening a bright spot for July Fourth

Story highlights

NEW: Major cities host big firework displays, though rain prompts some cancellations

A military base said no to a free fireworks display due to the sequester, station reports

Timing of the Statue of Liberty reopening "couldn't be better" for the New York area

Officials have taken steps to protect Liberty island from future storms, Bloomberg says

CNN —  

Hours before Americans celebrated their nation’s birthday by reveling in fireworks, one of its most iconic symbols – Lady Liberty – reopened to the huddled masses eager to see it up close.

The Statue of Liberty’s reopening was a sign of recovery from Superstorm Sandy’s devastation last fall and a big bright spot generally on an Independence Day dampened by soaking rains in a large swath 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.

On 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 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.”

New York City had other reasons to celebrate. Across the harbor, thousands packed Brooklyn’s Coney Island – one of many seaside areas in New York and the Jersey Shore that were devastated eight months ago by Sandy – to cheer a group of professionals chowing down on one of the most all-American of meals: hot dogs.

The top dog in the men’s event, for the seventh straight time, was Joey Chestnut. The California native somehow scarfed down 69 franks and buns in 10 minutes, topping his own record by one hot dog.

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Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas also repeated as champ, but barely. When the clock ran out after the women’s division showdown, the scoreboard indicated that she and Juliette Lee were tied at 36 piece. But the judges later ruled that Lee had eaten ¾ more dogs.

The timing of both festivities “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 saw dry, though hot, weather for July Fourth festivities.

Other parts of the country, such as the Midwest, also saw gorgeous weather.

But there were exceptions. The Southwest, as it has for days, continued to bake in triple digit weather. And rain dampened parades and doused firework shows in much of the Southeast, Ohio River Valley and parts of the Eastern Seaboard.

Mother Nature isn’t the only reason some Americans missed 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.

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

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Still, for others the show did go on. That include colorful and powerful fireworks spectaculars over Lake Michigan in Chicago, along Boston’s Charles River, over St. Louis’ famous Gateway Arch and along the Hudson River in New York City.

Wet weather prompted some communities – from Grove City, Ohio, to Franklin, Tennessee, to Decatur, Georgia – to call off their pyrotechnic displays. But others went on, like the hundreds of rain-soaked Atlantans and visitors who watched the night sky light up over the Georgia capital’s Centennial Olympic Park.

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 – such 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 to apple pie.

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.”

CNN’s Greg Botelho contributed to this report.