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Two students were set to return to their dorm. They were told instead to pack their bags and move.

Howard Plaza Towers East students were relocated after their rooms were damaged by water while they were home from winter break.

Howard University’s Plaza Towers East can be seen from the outside. (Ananya Hota/The Hilltop)

Kyla Keita’s return to campus this semester was not what she expected it to be. The day before she planned to return to her residence she received an email from the Office of Residence Life & University Housing, at which she gasped. 

“Good Afternoon Kyla,” it said. “We wanted to inform you that there was a maintenance emergency that affected your unit by water damage yesterday evening.”

That’s when she learned of her “temporary placement,” which was in a different residence about a 15-minute walk away from Howard Plaza Towers East.

The water pipe burst in Towers East last month displaced more than 100 students in 60 units, including Keita. The rooms, which span across eight floors, were “uninhabitable,” according to the Howard University website.  With what the website describes as “limited housing options,” many students have had to navigate moving to new living situations. 

Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Rashad Young said the restoration process was ahead of schedule as of Tuesday and that some rooms were nearly complete.

Two days after Keita received that email, on Jan. 6 amid a heavy winter storm, she, her mother, sister and grandmother moved back and forth between Towers East and College Hall South (CHS) in the rain to relocate to her new accommodation. 

She took her decorations off the walls, packed her clothes and personal belongings, loaded them in the car, then drove them to CHS to unpack. She made about 10 trips, she said.

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“It was overall just really chaotic,” Keita said. “I don’t think people understand how draining that all is.”

Keita said that she was sympathetic towards those affected by the Dec. 18 pipe burst. “But when it happens to you, it’s completely different,” she said. She said there were rugs and other items on the floor that were left damp and had mildew.  

Young and Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Cynthia Evers toured the partially flooded rooms’ restoration progress and the damages in Towers East and West on Jan. 20. 

Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Glen Vinson and HUSA President and Vice President Nia Naylor and Jay Jones joined them on this tour, which HUSA scheduled.

After previously visiting the buildings after the damage occurred, Young said he and Evers wanted to check in on the impacted rooms and determine updates regarding what the university expects the timeline to be for moving impacted students back into the building. 

The tour, Young said in an interview with The Hilltop, “also gave us the chance to talk to students and just how the rest of the building is working for them and their experience in the building.” 

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According to a Jan. 23 HUSA Instagram post, it is expected that impacted students will begin to move back into their rooms beginning towards the end of next week, starting with the Plaza and the first floor. 

Jones expressed the nature of efforts made by HUSA and Howard’s administration to aid and make accommodations for affected students. She said HUSA was briefed by Student Affairs on the next steps the university was taking in this regard, and that the tour initially served as a way to get senior administration visibly closer to the situation.

“I wanted to make sure that we not only have the necessary communication, but also we as HUSA leadership are being briefed and let known of those different kinds of issues so that we can better communicate that to you all,” Jones said.

Young said that the offices of Student Affairs and Residence Life & University Housing created a “liaison program,” whereby every impacted student has been or will be contacted by an administrator either from Student Affairs or himself to check in on how their temporary housing transitions have been. He said that the temporary housing relocations are all on campus.

Junior biology major SaRae Stegall was one of those students whose room was affected by the water pipe burst. The Fort Worth, Texas, native was not initially aware her room was affected as the first email sent was a mass email only detailing the pipe burst in general. She believed there was a gap in communication from the beginning.

“All of the emails were so short, they didn’t have enough information. Everyone had questions,” Stegall said. “You would call Residence Life and they wouldn’t answer. It was just like a runaround. We were getting nowhere for the longest.”

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Stegall, who was originally residing in a two-person suite in Towers East with private bedrooms and shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, was relocated to Bethune Annex, which is about a 10-minute walk from Towers East. 

She recalled the university assuring her that she would have assistance whilst moving from East Towers to Bethune Annex. The residence life representative her family had spoken to had ensured Stegall’s mother that she would have moving aid regardless of the time that she arrived back on campus, Stegall said. 

“We called. They told us that somebody would help me move everything to my room and that never happened. I literally just had a friend help me and we moved all day,” she continued. 

She said that as a result of this incident and the allocation of new housing assignments, she had to postpone the start of her semester and started classes a week late.

In the wake of the unknown following the pipe burst, Stegall and her family felt compelled to replace belongings that might have been damaged. She expressed concern over what she said was a lack of transparency and accountability from authorities, saying that her possessions were removed for restoration without a proper itemized list or photographic evidence. Stegall said she was denied access back into her room to verify what objects may or may not have been left behind. 

She said it took her four days to fully complete her move-in process.

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A Howard Plaza Towers RA, who prefers to remain anonymous out of fear of being terminated for speaking to The Hilltop, also said there was a lack of proper communication from the Office of Residential Life and Campus Apartments.

“They definitely oversimplified it,” the RA said, referring to initial mass communications to residents about the pipe burst. “Communication here is lacking. It’s lacking from students to the administration, it’s lacking from the RAs to the buildings’ students.” 

They said that the lack of communication from Campus Apartments and the Office of Residential Life makes it difficult to in turn communicate effectively with building residents, who often have the same questions RAs have.

Young said that Campus Apartments, a company that oversees management of Howard residences, sent six emails over the winter break providing updates regarding the water pipe burst and students’ rooms. He said the Office of Residence Life & University Housing sent additional emails about the incident, and that those impacted should expect more communications in the following weeks.

Young said cleaning and restoration processes for students’ damaged clothes and items “have been pretty good.”

Although he is aware of students who have not been able to locate their items, “We are triaging that and our vendor partners have been very responsive in helping those students in what seems to be isolated cases so far,” he said.

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Copy edited by Alana Matthew


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