PSU Bookstore survives flood

“I gave myself an hour to be depressed yesterday.”

That was Ken Brown, Portland State Bookstore manager, speaking last Friday. He and his helpers had struggled more than a week to get the bookstore back to a semblance of normal. A disastrous flood had inundated the basement level, where the crucial textbook department functions. Now the letdown came, the burnt-out feeling had hit him. He still faced months of final cleanup and reconstruction before the operation would find itself back up to usual.

With the spring term rush starting Monday, Brown had all vital services open and all departments functioning. Only a Herculean effort by himself, his staff and numerous helping organizations and individuals over the previous eight days made that possible.

Two weeks ago, Brown was beginning to feel like the perpetual Noah. The flood which erupted Thursday, March 21, was the bookstore’s third such deluge in less than a year. By now, Brown has accumulated some experience in dealing with unexpected cascades of water, though this was by far the worst of the three experiences.

The bookstore’s first flood came in late August last year, when a water supply valve split, flooding some offices. The valve was replaced and the bookstore began moving in Sept. 10. Then, on the 13th, the replacement valve split.

“It made us particularly good at dealing with floods,” Brown recalled. The valve splits were possibly linked to ammonia contamination of brass. The flood of March made the previous two looked like insignificant trickles.

Soon after 8 a.m. Thursday, March 21, staff in the basement discovered water flowing from beneath a door. Investigation disclosed the problem. A huge 40,000 gallon metal fire suppression reservoir in a basement room had been drained down and was refilling. When it filled, the inflow of water did not cease, and water began pouring out of the overflow pipe and onto the floor.

By the time the staff discovered the problem, water behind the door to the reservoir room was standing at almost four feet. The staff immediately alerted Brown, who was not normally due at the bookstore until later in the day.

“When I got in about 8:30 we had water flowing down the hallway and spreading all the way out onto the retail floor,” Brown recalled. The basement fire exit door held most of the water back temporarily. At that point there was about three feet of water standing in three rooms in the basement. He estimated this represented 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of water behind the door and moving into the store.

Brown quickly sought help and encountered John Bedker, construction project coordinator for the Portland State facilities department. Bedker was supervising work crews of DPR Construction in the Hatfield School of Government. These people rushed down and offered assistance. Bedker organized people and vacuum equipment.

“We were trying to head off as much water as possible by taking boxes of merchandise and stacking them into dams and trying to route the water into the bathroom floor drains,” Brown said.

The fire department arrived and decided to route the water into the seven-foot-deep elevator shaft. Although the shaft has a sump pump at the bottom, “we filled that up in a few minutes.” The fire department’s plan was to pump out the shaft into the sewer system but the gushing water overwhelmed the pump and overflowed the shaft. By this time, it was about 9 a.m.”The emergency response to this was nothing short of phenomenal,” Brown said. “We had more bodies down there scrambling, between the bookstore staff, the fire department, DPR Construction and facilities. We had different people doing different parts. Dupont Flooring Systems, which has a maintenance contract with the bookstore, sent a truck down which sucked up water.

“The response was nothing short of heroic,” Brown said. The fire department quickly got the water out of the elevator shaft. Dave Mason of Norris, Beggs and Simpson property managers, waded into the reservoir room and got the water turned off. Mason discovered that a pressurized main was pushing water into the tank, thus overflowing it.

From there, the staff began mopping up and struggling to return the bookstore to normal operation.

“The main focus was to save our computers in the room that houses our server,” There was three to four inches of water in that room but the equipment was elevated on eight-inch racks which held it above the water.

“If we had lost our server, we would not have been open for business during the spring term rush,” Brown said. “We would not be able to function.” Existing dehumidifiers in the room helped the staff get the room dried out.

Upstairs, at the main entrance, tapes enclosed the bookstore entrance and would-be customers were told the store would be closed all day Thursday.

“We started shifting gears to what it would take to open the textbook department no later than Monday,” Brown said. DPR Construction assigned workers to the problem. They immediately pulled up almost all the carpeting. Leaving soaked carpeting in place could quickly lead to mildew and mold, creating a potential health hazard. To get the carpeting up, workers had to lift every bookcase, jacking the units up and pulling the carpeting out from under them, then putting it all back together.

Brown also had to get the accounting department up and running, to know where the bookstore stood in inventory, particularly checklists on inventory coming in.

“Our main focus was not to disrupt the students,” Brown said. Many students make their textbook purchases during the break to avoid the usual rush at the beginning of the term.The next critical area was school supplies, adjacent to the text area. This also lost its carpeting clear to the walls. That required temporarily dismantling some fixtures. Crews worked late on Thursday and started again early Friday morning.

By Saturday the basement floor was clear and dry, but with sticky rug glue underfoot. The DuPont Company came in and laid a water-based concrete material called Webcrece over the carpet glue to provide a safe floor surface to walk on. This happened on Saturday. On Sunday, the art department got its Webcrece surface while the weary staff took the day off.

Early Monday morning the staff began putting the textbook department back together. Meantime, the upper floor of the bookstore had opened Friday but customers were temporarily restrained from descending the stairs to the basement for safety reasons.

The textbook department was declared ready by early Monday afternoon and opened for business at 2 p.m.

“We targeted noon but we ran into a lot of problems,” Brown said. “Since we were closed all day on Thursday, we weren’t doing book buyback so we arranged to extend the buyback to Monday and Tuesday.” The art department remained closed because of problems with some structural pieces. Workers started putting that department back together Tuesday and reopened it Wednesday.

The carpeting will be replaced. “We’re five to six weeks out on getting the carpeting,” Brown said. “The carpet is all custom. We’re looking at a total reconstruction of two to three months.” Some walls may need to be replaced and some have already been replaced.

Brown had learned in previous floods that mold and mildew can develop rapidly in a moist environment. Once that starts, significant time and money would be needed for rehabilitating the property. Such growths also threaten a health hazard.

To get the entire store completely dried out, DPR hired a company called Munters Moisture Control. Munters set up a platform-based dehumidifier on the plaza and ran big dehumidifying tubes down into the basement. Munters was able to dry out most of the store by Tuesday, with some wet spots still there on Wednesday. Some walls which weren’t drying satisfactorily were ripped out and replaced.

“We’ve got through the immediate crisis, we’re doing our thing, I’ve got my people working, now we have to put it all back together,” Brown summarized. The enormity of the job finally hit him Thursday. “But I can’t afford to be burned out,” he said. He still faces dealing with the insurance and getting the whole operation restored to its former luster.

The bookstore carries three insurers and specialists already have inspected the damage. The store lost three pallets of merchandise, some computers, and a lot of furniture.

“The initial tally on furniture that has to be replaced is $100,000,” he said. He predicted a large insurance settlement that will eventually be satisfactory.

Will this negatively impact the dividend that bookstore co-op members get annually? “It’s hard to say,” Brown answered. “We’ve lost $60,000 worth of business in the first four days. We have business interruption insurance as well. We’re pretty heavily insured so we’re in pretty good shape on the insurance side. But by Wednesday we had already tallied up $70,000 to $80,000 in carpeting, $25,000 in emergency response from DPR for labor and rental of equipment, $100,000 and counting on furnishings.” He didn’t have a number on lost merchandise. He counted the $60,000 in business disruption, all without factoring in rebuilding.

“My estimate is that we’re somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 dollars.” He expects most or all of it to be insured out.

Although the store itself has reached a functional level, the office suite in the basement still looks like a disaster site. Floor fans still hum, in continuing efforts to dry out every trace of moisture. Brown’s own office seems the embodiment of total chaos with its gritty floor and scattered amenities. The staff is still throwing out damaged merchandise on the retail floor. Brown keeps them on alert for any signs of mold, which so far have remained negative.

Brown said he wants to communicate to students that “We’re open for business and we’re safe.” He had an industrial hygienist inspect the store and give it approval. There will be air quality testing to safeguard employees and customers. As of last week, there was no mold. The bookstore, he summarized, “is ugly but it’s safe.”