Marshall facilities staff battles weather, water conditions

When numerous almanacs and other folk weather prognosticators—even the wooly worms—predicted a wicked winter for our region, it turns out they weren’t just fooling around. And no one knows that better than the maintenance crews at Marshall’s campuses and centers. Winters, even relatively mild ones, are always a challenging time for the crews that are responsible for maintaining the facilities, according to Mark Cutlip, director of physical plant on the Huntington campus. This year, however, with the year barely under way, there were problems not seen in decades—and a water problem never seen before—as crews scrambled to keep the university up and running.

They did and they went way above and beyond the call of duty, he wants everyone to know.

The first problem was too much water where it shouldn’t have been and no usable water where it should have been. And then with snow, wind, near-blizzard conditions and plunging temperatures that only penguins would enjoy, problems mounted.

Preparations for the predicted subzero weather began on Monday, Jan. 6, when maintenance crews made the rounds of all the buildings on the Huntington campus, according to Cutlip. “We worked around the clock; there was 24-hour coverage,” he said. “Many members of the crews stayed here all night and worked—they never went home.”

Because of the extreme cold, crews were split up into two-person teams who worked outside on the campus in freezing temperatures in four-hour shifts. “They inspected all the machine rooms and walked to every building to make sure the heat was on and the buildings were warm,” Cutlip said. With so many academic and administrative buildings, that was no easy task, he added.

Problems began when it became so cold the sprinkler systems in four buildings—Jenkins and Guiickson halls, the Science Building and Drinko Library—froze. “In my 35 years at Marshall, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Dale Osburn, associate director of physical plant in Huntington. “This was unique for us.”

“Initially when a sprinkler system freezes, if you’re lucky, the ice block that forms will drip rather than flow water but unfortunately it doesn’t take long for that ice to melt and let the water out,” Cutlip said. Fortunately the ice block held in Drinko Library, preventing damage, but Jenkins Hall and the Science building weren’t so lucky, thereby sustaining damage to both floors and ceilings. “We had to make repairs on broken sprinkler lines and we made emergency repairs on ten of our heating coils that froze in several of our buildings,” Cutlip said. Repairs were being made in the Science Building annex on first and second floors as late as last week before another round of frigid weather was predicted to move in.

The race to get everything back up and running was imperative with classes beginning Jan. 13. And their efforts paid off. Offices were open, buildings were heated, the campus was fully operational, and classes began as scheduled.

When students returned, everything was in good working order and, except for a few labs in the Science building, it was business as usual, Cutlip said. Winter, even without near-record frigid temperatures or frozen systems, is always an expensive and challenging time, he explained. “We have nine miles of sidewalks to clean and maintain. If it snows half an inch or half a foot, we treat it just the same. We clear the walks and put down about $3000 worth of salt every time it snows. Winter at Marshall is extremely costly for us. It takes a lot of effort and money to keep things going.”

Both he and Osburn have the highest praise for the Physical Plant personnel, many of whom worked around the clock, to keep the campus fully operational. “In all my years at Marshall, I’ve never seen anything like this, never. I saw how hard the staff worked and what they accomplished; they were out there every day,” Osburn said. And, added Cutlip, “Our staff went way beyond the call of duty. The crews were there, they stepped up; it was the staff that did the work. We’re very proud of them.”

Dr. John Yaun, director of Housing and Residence Life, says they were relatively unaffected by the weather crisis. They did, however, open the residence halls a day early for the convenience of those students who lived in areas affected by a water supply contamination. They took some precautionary measures as well. “We provided bottled water at all front desks for the convenience of students and just in case the contamination reached the Huntington area, which it didn’t.”

On Jan. 21, when worsening weather and road conditions made traveling treacherous and cancelled evening classes, an offer of what is loosely termed “bad weather rooms” was made to all staff and students. “These are rooms set aside for those people who can’t get to their homes or who can’t drive safely on the roads,” Yaun said. “We provide them linens and bottled water. We try to do whatever we can when the roads are icy.”

Overall, Yaun said, everything in the residence halls went well during the January freeze. “We have a good infrastructure in place; we have a system set up to help in case of inclement weather. The buildings are in good shape, we keep them updated and replace equipment as needed. They held up very well.”
And Yaun also credits his staff with keeping things running smoothly.

“The work of the Housing and Residence Life staff – HRL and First Year Residence Halls – is never ending. Their efforts include the maintenance of the grounds, residence halls and dining services; efforts that ensure students are safe, comfortable and have a living learning environment conducive to their academic success and development as students. This committed group of people –from maintenance and custodial staff to residence life and administrative staff – cares deeply about our students and Marshall, and tirelessly works to make sure our residence halls look great, feel like home, and are centers for living and learning,” he said.

Meanwhile, the maintenance crew on the South Charleston campus was dealing with a water contamination problem that shut down that campus for the better part of three days after a chemical leak spilled into the area’s water supply. When the all-clear signal from the water company finally came, days later, the crew began extensive flushing of all outlets in both buildings. “We went well beyond the recommended flush times, we flushed the system really well, we wanted to be sure the water was safe,” said Don Hill, director of physical plant I on the South Charleston campus. In addition, humidifiers had to be flushed and filters had to be changed as well.

“We try to maintain all of our equipment and keep it in good running order, but when there is extreme weather, things can happen. You learn from the past,” Hill said.

And at the Mid-Ohio Valley Center in Point Pleasant, which Hill and his crew oversee, there was damage to a room housing computers that occurred after a sprinkler system froze and sprayed water. “Fortunately Homer Preece (director of the center) was there when it happened and immediately got the water and electricity turned off, or it would have been a lot worse than it was,” Hill said. Ceiling tiles were replaced and walls had to be repaired. Hill said it’s been recommended that the 25 or so computers be replaced along with the carpet.

January has so far been a brutal month for cold temperatures, with wave after wave of frigid weather and snow coming in a seemingly endless loop.

“We can’t wait until spring gets here,” Cutlip said fervently.