Sanger Hall damages total $6 million

Basement level 3 of Sanger Hall suffered damage totalling nearly $6 million after a cast-iron pipe burst and flooded 25,000 square feet with 12 to 18 inches of water. Photo by Devin Peregoy.

Michael Melkonian
Contributing Writer

The flooding of the third-level basement of Sanger Hall late last year resulted in about $6 million in damages, but because Virginia public institutions are self-insured for damages up to $4 million, VCU’s private insurance company will foot the remainder of the bill.

City water gushed from a ruptured cast-iron pipe into Sanger Hall Basement level 3 on Nov. 25, 2013, leaving 25,000 square feet of the floor submerged in 12 to 18 inches of standing water. The water was eight feet deep in the mechanical room. The building lost power and was evacuated.

In addition to the damage to the basement, four research labs were directly affected. Because the power cut off, tissue samples throughout Sanger Hall had to be rescued with alternative cooling methods like dry ice.

“There are researchers who have lifetimes of research in these freezers,” said Brian Ohlinger, associate vice president facilities management at VCU. “If you lose the freezers and all the samples, they could lose a lifetime of research.”

All of the systems are on back-up power supplies, Ohlinger said, but because the basement was submerged in water, it wasn’t safe to activate any of the alternative power systems.

Skyrocketing financial costs aside, Jay Bonfili, associate vice president for Health Sciences Finance, is more concerned with the cost to VCU’s research and reputation.

“This was not a one-off,” Bonfili said. “This has happened before and it will happen again.”

“When word starts getting around, and we take ourselves very seriously in the School of Medicine as being a premier research institution, we will have to start having an honest discussion with ourselves about what is the long-term solution to this,” Bonfili said.  “Status quo is not acceptable.”

Ohlinger said construction of an eight-foot utility tunnel connecting Sanger Hall and the Children’s Pavilion caused the water to pour into B3 instead of bubbling up to street like in most pipe breaks.

“It was like the perfect storm,” Ohlinger said. “If it had just been a water main break and we weren’t doing the tunnel it would have just been a water line break and the city would have gone in and got it fixed. It wouldn’t have been a big deal.”

“The question is, ‘where’s the accountability?’” Ohlinger said. “Well, it’s like a brain aneurism, how can you ever predict that you’re going to have it and when are you going to have it in order to prevent it?”

Bob Steidel, director of Richmond Department of Public Utilities, said the streets are the city’s responsibility to maintain. Current city projects include replacing the older and fragile cast-iron pipes with the more impact-resistant ductile iron.

But Steidel also blames the extreme weather this winter.

“This particular winter has been a tough one and many of the major cities are having serious issues with water main breaks,” Steidel said. “The temperature combinations along with the freeze and frost cycles that have been taking place have been tough on water main infrastructure as well as sewer infrastructure as well as our electric infrastructure all over the East Coast.”

Steidel said the data won’t be compiled until the season ends, but he predicts this winter is shaping up to one of the most damaging in years.

Bonfili is trying to look at the Sanger Basement level 3 flooding as a catalyst to bigger discussions in the university.

“The water main break in Sanger really presented an opportunity for this dialogue to occur,” Bonfili said.  “We need to start thinking more deeply and more seriously about these issues.”

But Bonfili said that “wet lab” research space can cost up to $1,000 per square foot of construction, very high compared to other types of university construction projects.  This begs the question: Does VCU need to build new facilities or simply use existing ones more efficiently?

“Maybe this is the time that we start to consider making a big bet on research,” Bonfili said.

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