News Year’s Eve flood in Student Union causes thousands in damage, displaces staff

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The Student Union sustained thousands in damages after a frozen pipe burst and flooded the administration offices in the 150 suite behind Information Exchange over Winter Break.

The cost of damage is still being assessed. Ballpark figures have suggested between $35,000 and $50,000, but could be more, said Keith Skogstad, associate director of The Union. Insurance will cover up to $50,000 and remaining costs would come out of pocket for the university.

While campus was quiet and empty on the morning of New Year’s Eve, water had begun trickling from a sprinkler head in Assistant Director of Event Services Mark Venhuizen’s office until, finally, the frozen pipe burst. Because water was dispensing from the fire emergency pipe, it triggered the fire alarm, alerting University Police at 9:37 a.m.

Within minutes, the water flooded so deep in Venhuizen’s office that Skogstad, who’d arrived on the scene, couldn’t open the door, according to Venhuizen in a video he shared. The waterline left visible on file drawers measured 12 inches, Skogstad said.

Skogstad rushed to shut off the main water supply, but in the short time from UPD responding to the alarm and Skogstad arriving, the water had wreaked havoc on the offices.

“Most of Mark’s office is totaled,” said Jenn Novotny, senior director for The Union. “We are still waiting to find out if our office furniture can be fully restored.”

According to Director of Campus Maintenance Jim Weiss, crews had already evacuated furniture from the 16-room office suite and begun damage control by 10 a.m. Not only had the water flooded through the offices, it flowed onto Main Street, encroaching on the Market. It also seeped through to the lower level, causing damage in storage spaces and a maintenance room below.

Staff and local crews worked until about 4 p.m. that day cleaning up and salvaging what they could. The water was powerful, damaging and found its way into unexpected places.

“Mark’s desk was over here (across the room from the burst pipe), and his pencil drawer, which was closed, was full of water,” Skogstad said.

The cause is still unknown and difficult to trace exactly, but investigations suggest it may have been a result of exhaust fans being left on, allowing cold air to enter and freeze the pipe. Skogstad said this is inconclusive, though.

The wall between Venhuizen and Novotny’s office was the only structure with significant damage and may need to come down. Venhuizen’s office took the worst of it as it was a pipe in that room which cracked. The rest of the suite primarily suffered surface-level water damage. Some decorations, documents, furniture and equipment were lost and carpet will need to be replaced as well as new baseboards.

Since the flooding, employees previously housed in the office suite have been temporarily displaced, working in other locations or mobile until repairs are completed. For Novotny, who has been in her office for 13 years, this has been a bit of an adjustment.

“When I work with students I don’t imagine it’s so hard to be mobile because I see them do it all the time. I have a little to learn in the area of flexibility, but I’m surviving it,” Novotny laughed.

University Police aided in preventing a similar incident in the Einstein’s-Weary Wil’s vestibule only one day after the 150 office incident. According to Weiss and Skogstad, a line froze in that area as well, causing another leaky sprinkler head. A UPD officer making rounds through the building noticed it, though, and the main water line was shut off while a plumber made repairs, avoiding another incident.

“The floor and a couple ceiling tiles got wet but thankfully it was nothing major,” Weiss said.

Due to the record stretch of cold weather, Weiss said he heard reports of incidents similar to the office flood occurring throughout the state in the same weekend.

“It’s not as common to happen in an interior space like Mark’s office, but it does happen; and we’ve had other, minor, water-related issues in a few other campus facilities, too. It just happens this time of year,” Weiss said. “I guess that was our going away present for 2017.”

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