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Research back on track after flood

In the early hours of a Saturday last November, Mark Lenzenweger received an emergency alert from Binghamton University on his cell phone notifying him that electricity had been turned off in the science buildings and that the buildings were closed until further notice. He later found out that this was the result of a break in an 8-inch-wide water main buried 10 feet underground that had unleashed an estimated 1.6 million gallons of water, flooding the science buildings.

Sasa Succic/Staff Photographer Pictured above, a sign indicates that Science IV is now open for the spring 2011 semester. Since the water main break of December 2010, the ground floor has been restored to pre-flood conditions and seen the addition of new lab equipment. Additional funding has also been procured to allow the graduate students to complete their research.

Lenzenweger, a psychology professor, contacted the psychology department chair, Celia Klin, who informed him that the damage to the ground floor of Science IV, where his lab and office are located, was severe.

“I took a tour of [Science IV] and it was unbelievable,” Klin said. “I knew we were looking at a real crisis here.”

After the pipe first broke on that Nov. 13 morning, Lenzenweger and Klin, among many others, entered the building that night to dump dry ice into out-of-commission freezers, the rising temperatures of which threatened to destroy years’ worth of data.

“We were there in the building that night walking around with flashlights. It was really quite eerie and otherworldly,” Lenzenweger described. “There was water everywhere, and there was a profound stench from the animals being stored there and the wet carpets and papers. Everything had a fine layer of mud on it. When I walked into my office, I couldn’t even see the carpet, it was just all covered with silt — it looked almost like the surface of the moon.”

According to Karen Fennie, spokeswoman for physical facilities, the pipe likely broke because of its advanced age of about 37 years. This summer, the University will begin replacing a large section of the water line that runs through campus, among other improvement projects.

Fennie said the areas most affected by the pipe burst were the ground floors of Science III and IV and their shared mechanical room. In Science IV, the flooding damaged six laboratories.

The computers in Lenzenweger’s office were destroyed, as were his statistical computer software, books and other materials. His lab was also one of the hardest hit.

“Basically we lost all of our computing equipment, large amounts of supplies, and data that was stored in file cabinets because the water came up high enough to get into all of them,” he said. “We lost well over $75,000 [worth] of equipment.”

Melissa Conti, a graduate student studying the sense of taste in one of the Science IV labs, counted herself lucky that she had lost no data in the flood.

“I was just getting into the beginning of my project so no data was lost,” Conti said. “However, I lost a lot of the technology I use for my procedures, including a brand new computer and a taste delivery system. Ultimately, the flood halted my research for about two months causing me to relearn procedures that I was making progress on.”

According to Klin, Science IV was shut down for a week after the flood. Classes were relocated, and most faculty based in the building worked from home. Additionally, research was shut down, setting some studies back months, while other experiments had to be scrapped and started over.

The psychology department secured funding from the Research Foundation of SUNY to replace the damaged equipment and supplies so that the experiments could begin again.

“The faculty whose labs were affected put in requests for funding and equipment, and everyone pretty much got what they wanted,” Klin said.

Lenzenweger said new equipment is still arriving on campus. He has been taking inventory since moving back into his recovered lab and office this past Monday.

“Everything has either been cleaned or rebuilt,” he said. “The physical facilities people have been outstanding in their work on restoration.”

BU’s physical facilities department performed much of the repair work over the winter break.

“We had to replace electrical transformers and some other mechanical equipment that was under water,” Fennie explained. “We had to repair the elevators in [Science III and IV]. As far as ground floor labs and offices, as a preventive measure, we removed sections of wall in a number of locations so that we could dry out areas so that mold did not grow. We then repaired those walls and painted. We also replaced some carpeting and floor tiles. Other areas just needed to be thoroughly cleaned.”

Fennie estimates that these repairs cost approximately $300,000. Most of the work, with the exception of the Science III elevator, is complete. The elevator should be running in about two weeks.

Michael Goldman, a graduate student in the psychology department’s behavioral neuroscience (BNS) program, voiced approval of the job done by physical facilities.

“Physical facilities were awesome during the whole time,” he said. “They really wanted to make sure that our lab was going to be just as good, if not better, than before the flood. Now that Science IV is almost back to pre-flood status it’s strange not saying ‘hi’ to them in the halls anymore.”

But even though the repairs are nearly finished, recovery is still continuing.

“We’re not back up to full speed,” Lenzenweger said. “We definitely lost a good three months’ worth of research time, and there will be a period of recovery where we get everything back up and running. I think it’s going to be a good six to eight months before we get back to where we feel like we would have been.”

The several-month delay has been problematic for graduate students, some of whom are now trying to decide whether to extend their time at BU another year to finish their dissertations.

“The graduate school and the department are very supportive of the students and if they need to stay an extra year, they’ll make sure it happens and that the students are taken care of,” Lenzenweger said.

Conti, who is back in Science IV continuing with the research the flood interrupted, said she believed the University did a great job handling the situation in such a short time.

“Our lab’s funding and technology needs were met and we are very thankful,” she said. “With everyone who had labs and offices ruined, it was impressive how much improvement there has been since.”

Klin called the University incredibly generous in repairing and replacing items, and said she was surprised by how well everyone pulled together to quickly fix the problems caused by the flooding.

“It’s really great to have the building back, to have it no longer be a construction zone,” Klin said. “Every morning I walk into the ground floor and appreciate how great it looks compared to that first day.”