Workers set up scaffolding and chutes to remove damaged dry wall from Oak Street Hall, pictured Jan. 18 on the University of Missouri-Kansas City Volker Campus. A Jan. 3 flood caused by frozen pipes displaced about 150 students from 117 rooms.
Workers set up scaffolding and chutes to remove damaged dry wall from Oak Street Hall, pictured Jan. 18 on the University of Missouri-Kansas City Volker Campus. A Jan. 3 flood caused by frozen pipes displaced about 150 students from 117 rooms. (Kathy Lu/The Beacon)

The first email arrived shortly after the New Year, during winter break. 

Hundreds of Oak Street Hall residents learned frozen pipes had burst in the University of Missouri-Kansas City residence hall, damaging all five floors of its north and west wings. 

As the university assessed the situation, more emails arrived: Students would have to move. New rooms were assigned. Their belongings had already been packed and transported to their new homes. 

A freshman living in the hall was one of the lucky ones in some ways. She requested and was allowed to move to an undamaged room in Oak Street Hall with the same roommate. 

But the student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear being named could negatively affect her advancement in her academic program or her future career, was frustrated by how UMKC handled communication with students. 

“The way that they responded kind of made it sound like it was — not our fault — but that it completely wasn’t their fault, and that they were going to extend almost nothing to help compensate for anything,” she said. 

“So they weren’t going to make any exceptions to cancel contracts. They weren’t providing any reimbursement or protection plan over any of the stuff that they packed up … They couldn’t promise us where we would be.”

Before this incident, UMKC residence halls have flooded due to various reasons at least five times in the past seven years. And it’s led the affected students to question the university’s ability to handle such emergencies.

“Transparency is something that’s very important to me, and there just wasn’t a lot of transparency,” said a sophomore who lives in Oak Street Hall. Though her room wasn’t damaged, she asked that her name not be used for fear of facing discipline from the university or her academic program that could negatively affect her future career.

“They could have provided like, ‘OK, this is what we did. And this is why we did it.’ It was just like, ‘OK, you are either not moving, or you are moving.’”

Kristen Temple, director of residential life for UMKC, said her department made the best decisions it could given limited housing options and changing assessments of the situation. 

Weeks after the incident, she’s still waiting to learn the full extent of the damages, how much renovations will cost, what insurance will cover and how long repairs will take. 

New living assignments for Oak Street Hall residents affected by flood

The damage was so severe that 117 resident rooms out of 297 — some housing multiple students — were either damaged or within the construction zone, Temple said. About 150 students had to move. 

That’s about 30 percent of the 464 students living there as of Dec. 13, the date of the last occupancy report. The building’s capacity is 537.

The university won’t know exactly how many of those rooms will need repairs until demolition starts because “water travels” and not all of the damage may be visible, Temple said.

Construction workers have set up scaffolding and chutes on the north side of the building, which opened in 2004, to remove damaged drywall. Renovations will include replacing drywall, flooring and underflooring in rooms and hallways.

UMKC transferred displaced students to rooms elsewhere in Oak Street Hall, to Johnson Hall — also on the main Volker Campus — or to Hospital Hill Apartments. 

In a survey, the university asked students where they would prefer to live and whether they would like to stay with their current roommates or suitemates. 

But the chances of students getting their preferred choice were slim.

“While we asked for the input, and we used it to the degree we were able to use it, it was not a high percentage that would get their first choice,” Temple said. “We didn’t have a lot of completely open rooms and completely open suites to necessarily keep everybody together that wanted to be together. But if they couldn’t stay together, we tried to get them as close together as possible.”

While Johnson Hall is only a four-minute walk away, according to Google Maps, Hospital Hill Apartments are on the health sciences campus nearly four miles away — a 10-minute drive or approximately half-hour city bus ride from where students previously lived.

Temple said the Hospital Hill Apartments are on a 45-minute university shuttle loop with stops at the health sciences campus and multiple locations on the Volker Campus. 

Apartment living is usually more expensive, but Temple said students’ charges weren’t raised if they were moved to Hospital Hill. Students with cars can also park in the gated apartment garage without having to pay the usual upcharge in addition to campus parking permit fees.

But the freshman said that was unclear when she was waiting to hear where she would be assigned. 

Temple said UMKC didn’t take into account whether students had cars when determining new living assignments because the calculation was already so complicated. 

The flood happened Jan. 3, with students notified the same day. Housing assignments went out Jan. 12, the freshman said, with dorms reopening Jan. 14 and the semester set to start Jan. 18. 

Moving UMKC students’ belongings to new rooms after the flood

Temple said UMKC hired a professional moving company to transfer belongings and didn’t make any assumptions about what students would consider too damaged to keep. 

“There probably were some students that opened up their box at their new home and their trash can was packed with trash still in,” she said. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, this poster got wet so we’re going to throw it away.’ Everything that was there in their space was retained, dried out and then packed.”

Temple said UMKC needed to act quickly because the students were on break and it wanted to save their belongings from further water damage. 

But some students didn’t appreciate that the university would handle their possessions without their prior knowledge and consent. 

The sophomore whose room was not damaged said she understood her housing contract allowed the university to handle her belongings or search her room if she were suspected of wrongdoing, such as having drugs and alcohol. But she didn’t realize it could happen in other situations. 

The freshman said she would have returned to pack her own room if given the option. 

“If they would have said, ‘Hey, the dorms are really bad, and we need to start renovation as soon as possible. Either we’ll pack your stuff up for you, or you have 24 hours to come get it,’ I feel like that sort of an option would have been preferable because I would have come and packed my stuff up. I wasn’t so far away that that wasn’t possible,” she said. 

She had personal documents such as banking information and her passport in her room, having been told no one would enter while she was gone. She also worried belongings would be packed while wet or damaged in transit. 

In the end, most of those anxieties were assuaged when she found her possessions dry and her coffee mug collection well-packed and intact.

But she’s still missing a few belongings: the Brita water filter that was in her university-provided mini-fridge and a few electronic cables. She and the sophomore have heard other students are missing items as well, including a TV. 

UMKC has assured students it is working to sort out any misplaced items, both students said. 

Overall, the freshman was frustrated with the lack of flexibility from the university. She asked whether she could break her contract without penalty given the circumstances, or that she be compensated if any belongings turned out to be damaged from flooding or transportation. UMKC said no. 

The sophomore said the incident has undermined her confidence in UMKC’s ability to handle logistics and helped her realize how imbalanced the university housing contract is, with most of the power on the side of UMKC. 

A history of flooding in residence halls

This isn’t the first time UMKC students living on campus have been moved to other dorms because of flooding and renovations. 

According to coverage by student-run news site Roo News:

The sophomore is frustrated that UMKC hasn’t spent more money on renovating dorms. 

Tuition has become a higher percentage of college and university revenue, as state aid for higher education has decreased. Missouri lawmakers recently removed a cap on tuition increases.

But Temple said the flood wasn’t caused by a lack of funding and there aren’t any specific renovations needed to prevent future issues. 

Water pipes are already insulated, she said, and UMKC asks students to leave faucets dripping and cabinets open when cold weather is expected. Maintenance staff members walk through buildings on a regular basis to do checks. 

“In the spaces that we have that were impacted, we’re going to get new carpeting, new tile in students’ rooms, new painting. It’d be nice to do more of the facility if money were available so it all would look fresh and nice,” Temple said.

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.