Soggy Bottom: frozen water pipes rupture, flood four campus buildings

The recent onslaught of below-freezing temperatures has dealt a heavy blow to campus water pipes since Tuesday.

Four buildings experienced flooding after pipes ruptured in the Marvin Center, the hospital, a sorority townhouse and the Law School, prompting evacuations into weather in the mid-20s. Assistant Media Relations Director Matt Lindsay said the unseasonably cold weather in the District was to blame for the plumbing problems.

Facilities personnel, whom Lindsay said conduct daily inspections of boilers and pipes, will assess the damage across campus.

On Wednesday afternoon, a burst pipe forced the overnight relocation of 16 members of the Phi Sigma Sigma sorority from their house on G Street between 20th and 21st street. Lindsay said the building’s electricity was shut down Wednesday while a maintenance crew cleaned up the standing water on the ground and basement floors. The students were housed Wednesday night in residence halls around campus.

“We’re hoping to have them let in as soon as possible, but we don’t have a set time frame,” Lindsay said. He added that the majority of furniture was unaffected because the flooding occurred below the bedrooms.

Flooding on the ground floor of the Marvin Center triggered an evacuation from the building between 5 and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Lindsay said. Flooding in the Marvin Center caused EMeRG – the student-run Emergency Medical Response Group – to relocate their base of operations on the ground floor to a nearby residence hall, according to the University Police Department.

Pools of water on the Marvin Center’s ground floor and plumes of smoke or steam related to the pipe leak were visible from H Street.

The Marvin Center is equipped with both a fire and a water-flow alarm system, which signaled the building alarm to sound. Lindsay said the University has alarms to prevent excessive water damage, but flooding is sometimes unavoidable.

“Folks are always assessing and learning to see what if anything can be done better in the future in a situation like this,” he said.

EMeRG carried water-drenched equipment and supplies out of the building, as they prepared to move its command center to Crawford Hall Tuesday. The group’s communication, computer and medical equipment sustained water damage because of the flooding. EMeRG’s move to Crawford is temporary but there is no timeline for a possible return to its office, Lindsay said.

Marvin Center Managing Director Michael Peller said the facility experienced problems earlier Tuesday when a water alarm sounded at about 8:30 a.m. Both incidents in the building on 21st and H streets were related to a hot water pipe located above the EMeRG offices, he added.

On the same day, a sprinkler pipe in the overhang for GW Hospital’s main entrance near the Metro station ruptured mid-afternoon, resulting in cascades of water flowing from light fixtures and down the sides of the building.

Hospital employees wearing yellow rain slicks and hardhats used ladders to access the busted pipe as water poured on them. Other workers quickly mopped up indoor flooding with towels, while others poured salt on the standing water to prevent ice from forming.

The rupture of the outdoor pipe was likely the result of the low temperatures in recent days, said GW Hospital CEO Richard Becker. He added that no one was hurt because of the rapid response of maintenance personnel to contain the water.

“The guy shut the water to the sprinklers off and got control of it pretty quickly,” Becker said.

Becker said the flooding only affected the ground-floor lobby with minor seepage that was easily mopped up with towels. He said there were no delays or complications to the building’s operations.

Nasir Shahid, a vendor that sells seasonal outerwear and souvenirs in front of the Foggy Bottom Metro, witnessed the flood.

“I looked up and all of a sudden water was coming out,” he said. “It just kept coming out.”

Also on Tuesday, the first and second floors of GW Law School’s Stockton Hall were evacuated at about 6 p.m. due to another instance of flooding.

“Only these areas were evacuated, not the entire Law School complex,” Lindsay said.

Facilities Management took more than 30 minutes to respond to the fourth on-campus flooding incident. All law school classes were officially canceled at about 7:00 p.m., Law School professors announced, at which point University Police officers allowed students to reenter the building to retrieve property from lockers in the basement.

Law school student Elizabeth Poole said she was studying administrative law on the third floor of the Law School’s library when the fire alarm sounded. She said there was no flooding in the area of the building she was in.

Adjunct law professor David Jonas said he was unsure of what to do with his class after evacuating.

“I was kind of assuming it would be a few minutes as these things usually are,” he said. Jonas, who works as general counsel for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said he was lecturing his class on nuclear nonproliferation when the alarm sounded.

For the hour between the building’s evacuation and the official announcement of canceled classes, law students waited outside in the frigid temperatures in case their classes would resume.

The Weather Channel’s Web site reported temperatures in Foggy Bottom in the mid-20s, with a wind chill near 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The bitterly cold weather, which began Monday, is expected to continue throughout the week.

-Brandon Butler contributed to this report.

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