Ondine not ready to sink

Despite recent problems with a flood and repeated sewage overflows, the Ondine residence hall will continue as a vital element in Portland State student housing.

John Eckman, assistant director of auxiliaries, said the hall is slated for extensive renovation in the future and despite its recent problems, will continue as a key facility in PSU’s student residence picture.

Spring break became a time of near-disaster for the Ondine. A backup of raw sewage and a broken water main added up to misery, though fortunately many of the residents were away during the debacles. Many staff members from the university pitched in to help minimize the impacts of the twin mishaps to students, however, the sewage problem, despite considerable remedial work, continues to baffle Mike Irish, director of facilities.

According to Irish’s records, the most recent sewage overflow occurred on March 19, a Saturday at the beginning of spring break. He refers to it as flood number four and still recalls a similar incident last July. The water main break came on March 23, still in spring break.

“Both had repercussions as floods, but due to totally different problems,” Eckman said. The most serious problem, the water main break, occurred on the eighth floor. A contractor had installed some new plumbing there. The new piping was installed in connection with extensive renovations scheduled for the building, probably in the summer of 2005.

“It released a tremendous amount of water,” Eckman said, recalling the break. Irish concurred, saying, “It was one of the worst floods I’ve seen in a long time.” The water went down the elevator shaft, spreading out on each floor and flowing into student rooms.

Some apartments were affected more than others. Eckman estimated it could have affected 80 apartments, with probably half affected seriously. Residence life staff was able to get into apartments quickly and in some cases get belongings off the floors to minimize the damage.

“For the students on the eighth floor, there was no time to really get in there and get stuff out of the water,” he said. Eckman said he got a call on the flood at 9 p.m., right after it happened and by 10 o’clock all the professional staff, 20 resident assistants, about 15 people from College Housing Northwest, a large contingent from the facilities department, about 15 contractors and the fire department all were pitching in.

“People worked all night long,” Eckman said. People continued to work all week and inspectors came in to make sure there were no hazardous materials problems. The work continues as the hall slowly dries out. Staff from Smith Memorial Student Union brought over bottled water while the water supply was shut off pending repairs. The next day, students showered at the Peter Stott Center until the water supply was back on next morning. A number of students were put up temporarily at Day’s Inn.

“While the students were away, we called a lot of students at home and offered to launder their clothes,” Eckman said. Some students had water-damaged textbooks and the PSU Bookstore offered to exchange them for fresh copies.

The students in affected rooms are putting together claims, Eckman said, and the university will take action to get them reimbursed.

The sewage problem has presented a persistent puzzle to the university. The problem became known to the general public two weeks ago when Willamette Week reported “another eruption of raw sewage” which seriously affected he Regional Research Institute for Human Services, occupants of the Ondine’s first and second floors, and a part of the graduate school of social work.

Irish explained that the 40-year-old sewage system in the Ondine operates on a stacked design, with sewage pipes servicing rooms on each side of the stack.

For many years, there was no problem with the pipes. More recently, the design of the stack began causing the problem of the pipes being plugged up, affecting two toilets on the third floor.

Discharge from these toilets caused a sewage overflow which flooded down on the floors below. The most recent flood was the one referred to by Irish as “flood number four.” New piping bypasses called “sweeps” were installed to circumvent the problem but the overflow recurred. The students living in the affected apartments were offered assistance in relocating to other living quarters and the apartments were vacated.

“The problem is, whatever is going down the pipes gets past the first floor and seems to plug between there and the street.” Irish said. “The sewage comes up, finds the earliest release which is the two toilets on the third floor.

“The first time we cleaned the apartments and the second time we moved the students. And they were very happy about that.”

When the sewage came out, it would go through the flooring into the first and second floors, causing considerable damage to the research institute. After the second flood, facilities moved everyone out to another temporary occupancy on campus.

After the first overflow, facilities organized to deflect as much of the sewage flow as possible, Irish said. This has helped minimize damage to the first floor particularly.

“But it becomes a totally uninhabitable area down there so we’ve put them in temporary locations. They are moving to the AT&T building and they’ll all be together again,” Irish said.

Meantime, the solution remains evasive.

“We’ve looked at various things, but until the last year we haven’t had this kind of a problem,” Irish said. He explained that the stack of pipes feeds into a main pipe which carries the sewage into the street. The installation of new pipes called sweeps was tried to solve the problem, but it did not.

“It has not solved the problem. We’re continuing to watch it. Continuing to investigate probable causes. I was appalled after we put the sweeps in that we had another one.” For now, the strategy is not to occupy the two apartments and the floors below until facilities determines the solution.

Meanwhile, PSU is not giving up on the Ondine. It will soon be repainted, Irish said. The money is available for renovation. The building will undergo some seismic upgrade in the immediate future.

Eckman said, “It’s got a great community there. We’re committed to make the building work as a residence hall.”