Winter Storm Elliott Caused Damages to Student Housing, Impacted Personal Property


Abe Frato

Burton Hall was among the buildings that suffered damage as a result of Winter Storm Elliott.

Approximately 50 students’ residences were impacted by pipes bursting due to extreme cold weather in Burton Hall, Tank Hall, Asia House, and three Village housing units during winter break. Oberlin Facilities Operations Staff discovered the
damage during routine checks Friday, Dec. 23, according to Mark Zeno, assistant vice president and dean of Residential Education of Student Life Auxiliaries.

“Our facilities staff discovered damages to water pipes and heating systems caused by the winter storm and frigid temperatures, which may have also directly affected your residential space,” an email sent to affected students Jan. 19 read. “Therefore, we are proactively reaching out to inform you of the potential damage caused by the winter storm and the freezing conditions.”

The email went on to say that the College had contracted several professional cleaning companies to “identify damages, fix broken systems, perform initial water cleanup and drying, dehumidification, and replace carpet and other materials where necessary,” and included steps students could take to report missing or damaged property and seek reimbursement.

“The professional contractors came in, inventoried, packed, relocated and stored property while they went through and looked for damages.” Zeno said, adding that he was very impressed with the Facilities Operations’ speedy response.

Student property that was removed from rooms was inventoried so it could be returned to them. Students who returned for Winter Term were put up in the Hotel at Oberlin until their residences were cleaned and repaired. Zeno said that water damage due to winter temperatures is not unusual and that a similar incident happened a few years ago at his previous institution.

“Almost all damage was preventable and caused by windows being left open,” Chief Facilities Officer Kevin Brown wrote in an email to the Review. He encouraged all students, faculty and staff, to make sure windows are closed when leaving a space in the future, especially during cold weather.

College second-year Ava Cantlon, who received a voicemail informing her of damage in her dorm room, said she felt the vagueness of the original message made the situation unnecessarily stressful. However,  she was pleased with further communication she had with the administration.

“I asked for photos,” Cantlon said. “I asked, ‘Is [the damage on] the walls? Is it on the floor? Is it on what side of the room?’ Because I was concerned about specific possessions.”

To her relief, her room was mostly unaffected — only a notebook was damaged by the water.

“I wasn’t really sure and didn’t really have a count of what I lost versus what I originally had,” second-year College student and Burton Hall resident Sangeetha Ramanuj said.

Ramanuj felt the cleaning company did a good job of returning the items they removed from the room, but added that the school could have been more transparent about the process.

“[My roommate and I] didn’t have our basic amenities like toothpaste or detergent pods, so we didn’t know what we should spend on versus what we shouldn’t,” Ramanuj said. “We tried to email [the College]. They weren’t as communicative as they could have been.”

Ramanuj said when she tried to contact the school to inquire about important possessions left in the room, they redirected her
to the third-party contractor.

Conservatory fourth-year Ezra Rudel also described the situation as chaotic. Rudel, who works as a Housing Loose Ends Coordinator in Tank Hall, a building that is rented to the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association by the College, said they did not hear about the damage until New Year’s Eve. They said they wished that the College administration had communicated more with OSCA staff, rather than sending emails directly to residents. Rudel also described the process of moving back into Tank as “hectic.” Because of Conservatory auditions, the Hotel was completely booked the weekend before class started and Tank residents who were temporarily housed there had to leave. According to Rudel, originally the Hotel wanted students to check out by 9 a.m. on Friday, while the College said Tank would be ready for residents to return at 8 a.m.

“We were originally going to have a one hour window to move all 10 or 15 people who were living in the Hotel and all their stuff,” Rudel said. “Almost none of us have cars, it was going to be kind of a disaster.”

Eventually, the College agreed to allow residents to move in to Tank at 8 p.m. Thursday evening.

“We were told [the College was] going to shut down the whole [Tank Hall], and drain the pipes and shut off the heating and the electricity, because there was soon to be nobody here,” Rudel said. They added that their views are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of OSCA.

Students also had questions about what caused the damage. Pipes bursting and flooding struck Cantlon as an easily avoidable situation.

“I’m from Minnesota so I’m very familiar with freezing temperatures and all the misrule that can bring,” Cantlon said. “And I know that Oberlin does not get as cold as Minnesota does, but it definitely does get cold.”