Winter storms spread across the U.S. in late February, bringing ice and snow to states not typically synonymous with below freezing temperatures. One such state was Texas, where brutal winter storms caused millions to lose power and pipes to burst at a level that led to water disruptions for roughly half the state’s population, according to reports by CNN.
Student Housing Business spoke with Carol Binzer, director of administrative and support services with residence life at Texas A&M University, on the university’s response to the unprecedented winter weather and its impact on residence halls and the student population.
SHB: What impact did the recent winter storms have on your student housing communities? What steps did you take to help impacted students?
Carol Binzer: The freeze and winter storms had more of a social impact than a facilities impact for us. It has piled onto what residents and students are already dealing with due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 62 buildings that on-campus housing manages, there were some leaks — mostly small issues that maintenance crews responded to immediately. There was only one building with flooding, which resulted in 10 students being relocated for a day beginning at 5am when the fire alarm alerted to the flooding. Our staff are the unsung heroes in getting these students placed and helping with belongings being picked up and dried out. Across our other buildings, burst pipes spewed water externally or were small enough to be contained and repaired immediately — 28 total buildings reported pipe issues. Two apartment residents were also relocated while their maintenance issues were addressed. We did not lose water on the whole, and where in individual areas it was turned off, it was restored within hours. In the case of the relocated students, utilities were restored and the time away was for the clean-up and drying out of the flooded areas. Live-in staff remained on call despite classes being cancelled and responded to maintenance and custodial issues as they arose, continued to tend to residents in isolation and quarantine, and attempted to offer things for residents to do.
The campus did experience some rolling power outages. Luckily, on-campus housing was not impacted in a significant way. In fact, we heard from some students that off-campus students were asking if they could come stay with their friends on-campus. Due to COVID protocols, the number of guests allowed were reduced, but open areas were available, like the Commons, the Hullabaloo first floor and White Creek Community Center.
SHB: Were any of your dining facilities impacted? Was boiling water required at any point?
Binzer: On-campus water throughout the residence halls and dining halls was not subjected to a boil order at any time during the storm. Our dining halls maintained operations, feeding students during abbreviated hours, which included closing between lunch and dinner (2pm to 5pm) as they were also dealing with staffing issues from those who were having trouble getting to campus. Our team did an excellent job maintaining service for our students in isolation and quarantine that do not have the flexibility to get food for themselves due to COVID-19. Our dining hall tam prepared meals, doubling up so that students had enough food to get by. Housing staff continued to deliver those meals to individuals in isolation and quarantine despite the weather — again unsung heroes — across 59 buildings, golf carting in miserable weather and ice to serve our students. Sometimes, staff coming to work on campus had homes without power or water themselves.
SHB: You mentioned the storm caused more of a social impact than a facilities impact, can you speak further on this?
Binzer: The social issue was the isolation. Without classes or student organization meetings or programs going on, students’ sense of cabin fever was intensified. Game rooms were open as usual and available with COVID guidelines and students did avail themselves of fun outdoors, but even those with cars could not get out and about. With COVID-19 protocols in place, encouraging physical distancing and mask wearing, the confinement to rooms for days on end was a real test. They have since faced two weeks of piled on assignments and catch up work from the time ‘off’. As a social experiment, it has been a trying test. Students are coming out on the other side, but as anticipated, now that COVID testing has resumed, there has been a spike in positives and close contacts, so students are being relegated to isolation and quarantine rooms.