On August 28, some Amherst students receive da string of emails from the Office of Residential Life. The messages informed them that Moore, one of the several dormitories on campus that provide free storage for students, had suffered a steam leak in the basement sometime in the summer. In the time between the leak and the discovery of the damage, high moisture levels combined with humidity caused the entire storage area and all boxes present to be contaminated with mold.
Custodial staff discovered the leak in late July and humidifiers were immediately placed to dry out the room, which had been completely soaked. Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) was contacted soon after and put in more humidifiers and negative air machines to draw out and dry any mold in the room. On August 10, Richard Mears, Enviromental Health and Safety Manager, and his team began a four-day process of unpacking every box and examining the items within to determine the level and type of mold present.
“We actually thought, looking at boxes on the outside, that they would be good. But as soon as you opened the boxes up, everything was covered in mold,” Mears said.
Trained to identify and correct hazardous conditions, they decided what was to be discarded and what could be salvaged and repackaged for a new location. Everything that could be saved had to be wiped clean and placed in new boxes while all contaminated items were set aside, sealed in plastic bags and sanitized. The basement was scoured of everything within, bleached three times and completely cleared of all signs of mold before the custodial and grounds staff moved in to clean the room.
Taylor Penzel ’15, one of Moore’s residential counselors this year, returned on August 14 to find both ruined and saved boxes stacked near the doorway, with salvaged items held in large plastic bags. When she returned a few days later, the boxes and items had been moved to storage in Stearns Dormitory.
“A member of the staff said that it [the basement] was filthy and everything was wet — the boxes and the things inside of the boxes — were moldy and extremely foul-smelling,” Penzel said.
By mid-August, the EHS team had created a full inventory of all the items that had to be disposed of, all those that were saved and the student names attached to them. This list was then given to Residential Life.
“We worked with the Five-College risk management team housed at Mount Holyoke College to develop a protocol over how we can work with students who had items in storage and see if there could be a recoup of some losses,” said Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life Torin Moore.
Although the housing regulations on student storage state that “the College assumes and accepts absolutely no responsibility for the loss or damage to personal property of any occupant of College housing,” Residential Life determined it would be a good-faith effort to help the students somehow replace some of what they had lost, considering the singular circumstances of what happened.
Along with risk management, the College began the process of determining how students could receive reimbursement and what items would qualify, such as linens and clothing as opposed to electronics and office supplies. Students soon began to receive messages with an itemized list of discarded items that might have belonged to them and were subsequently emailed a letter from Stacie Kroll, the Five-College Insurance and Claims Specialist, about the reimbursement process.
Though the reimbursement process detailed by risk management reassured many students, the College’s method of dealing with the issue and lack of communication led to some dissatisfaction. For many, especially those who had lost nearly everything they had stored, the late notice made the difficult process of moving in even more time-consuming and confusing.
James Yang ’15, lost six of his nine boxes and over 70 percent of the items he stored and encountered difficulty in finding information at first.
“The initial email [from Residential Life] stated that they would send an additional email regarding reimbursement within 24 hours. I never received such email and had to get it from a friend, who got it from a friend,” Yang said.
It was a similar case for many students, particularly those who moved in early for various activities. Before Residential Life emailed on August 28, students who had left their items in Moore had no idea where their boxes were stored or what had happened.
“I’m not going to store my things in dorm basements anymore — not that I have anything to store,” said Jesse Chou ’15, who lost 60 items in total.
As there is no protocol currently set up for issues like this steam leak, the College is now in the process of reviewing its entire policy on storage. There is also no fund set up for cases of damage such as this, partially because the College cannot predict how damage can occur and partially because of the policy stating that students are responsible for their own loss. Although the Moore storage area itself has been cleaned and repaired and students have been able to reclaim at least some of their belongings, the question of what the College will do from now on remains unanswered.
Regarding the process of this year, Dean Moore said, “It’s a conversation we will continue over the course of the year, but we are not operating under the assumption at this point that we will continue to do this. I think this means we really have to revisit our storage policy. We have to decide as an institution what we are going to do about student storage and if it is something that we will continue on our campus or not.”