Surviving Campus Flooding

From the South to the Midwest to the Northeast, this has been a year of flooding that has kept facility managers stretched tight and thin, including Roger E. Kluck, P.E., assistant vice president for Facilities Management at Minot State University (MSU) in North Dakota. Rising out of the floodwaters are lessons in relationship building and trust that helped save the 3,800-student campus from certain devastation.

After a near miss during Easter weekend, MSU administrators received word on Sunday, June 12, that more high water was coming down the Souris River and through the valley where the campus is located. On Monday, June 20, administrators were told to expect an evacuation notice. That’s when Kluck launched into action.

“I called business associates who took over for me when I left a position as the county’s water board engineer, knowing that they would be aware of where the water was going and its expected elevation,” Kluck begins. “I learned that, if we did nothing, half of the campus would be under water.”

Kluck then called a surveyor and asked for elevations along the south, west, and east sides of campus and to three ft. above that. Next, he called the contractor who handles campus snow removal and asked if his firm was available to immediately start building dikes. “We went into a 24-hour mode,” he says, “building nine- to 12-ft.-high dikes with three ft. of freeboard on the south side. Once that was in motion, I left campus to protect my own home. Standing in knee-high water, we completed the dikes early Friday morning, June 24.”

The flood lasted more than two weeks, reaching seven ft. on the dikes. “It was not your normal couple-of-days flood,” Kluck notes, “as the Souris is in a horseshoe shape, coming from and returning to Canada, and passing through our flatland. During those two weeks, we had 15 pumps running to keep water from backing up on us.”

Once the river went down and administrators felt comfortable that the campus was safe, they started removing the dikes. The dirt came from a hillside property the University owns and, in fact, the city took a lot from the same property for its dikes. Upon removal, the dirt was used to start building a road on the north side of campus where administrators hope to construct a sports arena. “We recaptured 99 percent of the dirt,” Kluck observes.

“We built the dikes for $86,000 and removed them for $190,000,” Kluck continues. “We would have had tens of millions of dollars of damage without them. Specifically, the water would have split the campus in half, taking out all residential housing, a classroom facility, and plant services. Losing plant services would have taken out all the boilers on campus, which were still operating at full steam because it was spring. We would have been out of business for a year or two — or more.”

Help From a Sister

After the flood, a delegation from the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks, a sister institution in the North Dakota University System, voluntarily traveled to Minot for a meeting with campus officials to discuss recovery and provide emotional support. The UND delegates had firsthand flood experience, having endured the Red River flood of April 1997, which heavily damaged that campus.

“When we arrived, we saw a clean campus in good shape,” says Peter Johnson, executive associate vice president for University Relations at UND. “We saw where they put the dike to protect the campus. We saw a lot of FEMA, Red Cross, and National Guard personnel, as the University provided housing for many emergency workers.”

“The meeting itself was a good university-to-university interaction,” Johnson recalls. “We broke into smaller groups based on our areas of expertise and then came back as a large group for shared messaging of what we discussed in our small groups.”

The UND delegation had two critical pieces of advice to share with MSU administrators. First, to prevent a loss of students, use all forms of social media to convey the message that the campus was up and running and would be open for business as usual. That advice was successful as, during the first week of classes, there was just a five percent reduction in the student population, with plans to conduct a second census during the third week.

The second piece of advice was to remember that their own faculty and staff needed time and assistance in dealing with their personal losses. “It’s easy to forget that human element when you’re so focused on what needs to happen for the institution,” Johnson observes. To that end, MSU administrators hired an ombudsman to assume various roles, such as representative, liaison, advocate, or other intermediary, on behalf of the University in support of and to resolve matters affecting faculty, staff, and students. In addition, administrators purchased an eight-unit efficiency building to house faculty/staff families displaced by the flood.

Moving Forward
While the campus was saved, MSU administrators still had a lot to do to put things back together and prepare for the fall term. A schedule was coordinated, with deadlines created by backing up the time needed to complete specific events from the first day of classes. On the list: remove the dikes, clean boulevards and driveways, restore grass, give everything a facelift, and dry and re-carpet the buildings on the south side of campus that experienced a bit of groundwater seepage.

“We wanted to make sure that our incoming freshmen saw that we were a thriving campus and ready for them,” says Kluck. “And, on freshman move-in day, it did look as though we didn’t have any effect from the flood. Unfortunately, across the street in town, there was still heavy devastation.”

The damage in town affected MSU in terms of student housing. With most of the off-campus student residences unusable, administrators prepared to accommodate the 60 to 65 percent of students who live off campus. “We scrambled to make double rooms into triples and turn common space into rooms,” Kluck says. “We also purchased 10 portable housing units. We made sure there were beds for everyone.”

Susan Ness, MBA, MSU’s director of Public Information, credits Kluck with the University’s success in surviving the flood: “It was Roger’s quick thinking, community connections, engineering background, and diligence that literally saved this campus.”

Kluck himself is a little more philosophical about it, observing that, yes, he was fortunate to have relationships in place with county officials and contractors, but that it only makes sense for anyone in his position to have those relationships established for any potential emergency. Also, he credits University administration with saving the campus. “I was fortunate to have executive support,” he says.

“They trusted the staff to make the decision to build a dike to protect the campus, knowing that our neighbors would be flooded and understanding that they would be flooded anyway, and it worked. That kind of a decision is difficult because it comes with political baggage. Still, without the trust, the dike wouldn’t have been accomplished, and the loss would have been enormous.” 

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