Johnson House Floods; Residents Relocated
A cascade of water erupted from the ceiling of the closet of room 204 in Johnson House at approximately 9:20 a.m. last Sunday. The rupture resulted in a 20-minute indoor rainstorm that soaked through the floor and caused an estimated $30,000 of damage to the aging Victorian dorm before Safety and Security officers were finally able to shut off the water.
The cause was a corroded fire-suppression sprinkler, specifically, a tiny capsule of fluid that acts as the trip switch. Under normal circumstances, intense heat will cause the fluid to expand and break the capsule, releasing the water. However, on Sunday, the rusted-out switch dropped out and let loose a stream of water to put out a non-existent fire.
The resident of room 204, College junior Max Strasser, was off campus when the incident occurred. He returned to find most of his belongings “in garbage bags, wet. All my clothes, everything that was on the floor or in my closet.”
Strasser and all the other residents of J-House were given rooms in the Oberlin Inn by the Office of Residential Education to allow contractors access to the dorm. Workers from ServPro, a contracting service, labored for most of the afternoon, and almost all of Johnson’s 28 residents were allowed back into the dorm on Monday at 3 p.m. However, three students will remain in singles in South — singles set aside every semester as “emergency singles” — until their rooms are habitable.
Director of ResEd Molly Tyson, who has acted as the main liaison for the displaced students, sympathized with the residents of Johnson house, and was satisfied with the way the school’s employees handled the crisis. “On Sunday, I think the response was really, really good,” she said, referring to the manner in which the Oberlin Fire Department alerted Safety and Security so that gas, electricity and water could be shut off to avoid further damage.
“As far as being a college student goes, it’s about as disruptive as something in your life can be,” said Strasser, who has mixed feeling towards ResEd’s handling of the situation. “They haven’t been great,” he said. “I realize that this is…a sort of unusual situation, and they don’t know what to do. They’ve done what they can.”
Among the students whose rooms were flooded, only Strasser asked that the school compensate him for damages, which he estimates to be several hundred dollars. According to ResEd’s policy, only students who can document all the items damaged and can prove denial by renter’s insurance or their parents’ homeowners’ insurance can claim damages with the school. The outcome of Strasser’s case is still uncertain.
In all, four student rooms and the kitchen were affected. The room below 204 suffered the worst: the water soaked only the floor of 204, whereas both the floor and the ceiling of 104 will have to be replaced. The college estimates that the rooms should be livable again in two or three weeks, with the kitchen up and running before that.
As of midweek, things were more or less back to normal in Johnson, except for the giant industrial dehumidifiers humming in the gutted rooms. Hoses snaked out from under the doors of 204, 203 and 104, where the worst damage had been sustained, emptying into garbage bins. Boxes of salvaged kitchen equipment were stacked in the hall.
College junior Andrew Echlin, who stayed at the Oberlin Inn for two nights, is glad the College includes older buildings in its housing options, but notes that this practice comes with risks.
“Maybe J-House hasn’t been kept up as it should have been,” he said. “I know when I first moved into my room it was in a bit of a state of disrepair, and the fact that the sprinkler spontaneously went off on its own points to a greater problem.”
The College currently has no plans to examine other sprinklers in Johnson. The sprinklers will undergo their normal inspection by Simplex, the company that the school contracts for its fire-suppression system, this summer.
According to Keith Watkins, head of Facilities, the renovations will not affect any of the school’s long-term construction plans. “This is obviously something unplanned for, but it doesn’t affect capital improvements or projects,” he said.
“From a facilities point of view it’s a significant dollar amount, it’s a significant amount of time, but it is something that was easily contained…and we have a short-term capability of putting it all back together.”