Broken water main forces USD students out of Coyote Village

A student walks past a small generator operating outside of Coyote Village near the building's south doors Tuesday afternoon. Students were able to return to their rooms long enough to retrieve needed items. (Photo by David Lias)

It all started when the fire alarm kept going off in Coyote Village, a residence hall on the University of South Dakota campus, at about 9 p.m. Monday.

Several hours later, on one of the coldest nights Vermillion has experienced this winter, a number of the 500 USD students who reside at in the almost new student housing found themselves scattered – first at several different university locations, and later at a couple Vermillion motels that are serving as students' temporary homes.

They were forced to leave the building after a water pipe burst, forcing university officials to shut off electricity and water utilities to the residence hall.

By mid-Tuesday afternoon, it appeared that those students likely would have to spend at least one more night in their substitute housing.

Below-freezing temperatures may be the cause of the water pipe break. University officials suspect the temps could have caused the pipe to freeze and break, which led to flooding in parts of the main lobby, a hallway, a maintenance room, laundry room and three residential rooms in the facility.

According to the National Weather Service, Vermillion's outdoor temperature was single-digit at about the time the pipe failed.

"It is one of the coldest night we've had in several years," said Tena Haraldson, director of communications and media relations at the university. "That dorm opened in 2010, and it's got to be probably some of the coldest weather we've had since it was brand-new."

Haraldson added that the root cause will not be determined until the incident has been investigated more fully.

The first thought that entered the mind of Jilanne Doom, a junior at the University of South Dakota from Wagner who resides in Coyote Village, was that such a cold night was a bad time to hold a fire drill.

"The fire alarm started going off at about 9 o'clock last night, and we were all kind of confused because they weren't like normal alarms. We were thinking that a fire drill on the coldest night of the year didn't sound like the best idea, so we were just going to stay in our rooms," she said, laughing, during a phone interview Tuesday morning. "People didn't know whether they should leave or not, and finally the CAs (Community Advisors) came around and had us all go to different buildings, like the wellness center and the fine arts center.

"We were thinking that it would be a couple hours, maybe, and we could get to our rooms," Doom said. "We went to a friend's house, and then we found out at about 1 a.m. that they were housing students at other places."

The first few hours of the evacuation were a confusing time, she said.

"The communication was kind of bad; we really didn't know what was happening in the Village," Doom said. "Eventually, they (university officials) sent out an e-mail in the middle of the night about the pipe bursting. Since then, we've just been playing by ear and reading our e-mails to see what's going on."

"We can't thank the students enough for their patience and cooperation during the evacuation process," said Kimberly Grieve, dean of students at USD, who noted that Coyote Village residents were taken to the Muenster University Center ballroom where university officials arranged hotel rooms for all displaced students. According to Grieve, 160 students spent Monday night at two local hotels. Shuttle services, running every 15 minutes on Tuesday, are transporting students from the hotels to campus.

"This is certainly a tremendous inconvenience, no matter what time of day, but students affected by the water pipe break have been great," she added. "Their cooperating helped keep everything under control as we were able to find lodging for all who needed it in just a matter of a couple of hours."

During most of Tuesday, students were able to return to Coyote Village to retrieve clothes and other belongings. They were not allowed, however, to enter the facility after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Haraldson said.

She didn't know how long the affected students would require hotel and shuttle accommodations. "We're just taking it one day at a time," Haraldson said.

Doom resides on the third floor of Coyote Village.

"It won't affect my room; we heard the pipe break is between the second and third floors, so we heard rooms on the first and second floors are affected, but third and fourth floor rooms are safe," she said. "My room should be fine; I have friends on the first floor, though, who have water in their room now."

Affected students, including Doom, had received an e-mail Tuesday from the university asking them to check out of their motel rooms and return to Coyote Village.

"I don't expect any of my friends or myself to do that, just because there isn't any water or electricity," she said. "I don't really know what they are expecting us to do, since it's not exactly livable there right now.

"I'm just at a friend's place, hanging out," Doom said.

She attended a morning class Tuesday. Some of her classmates who are also Coyote Village residents were absent.

"I think there is the impression that kids who live in Coyote Village have the option whether or not they wanted to make it to class this morning, just because it was a really late night," Doom said. "I was fine, so I went to class, but I know a few students weren't able to make it because their (book)bags and supplies and other stuff were still in their rooms."

It is not yet known when the students will be able to return to their dorm full-time.

"One of the issues is that (the pipe) decided to break right over the electrical room," Haraldson said "So, when the water came down it got the main electrical panel wet, and we have to order some parts.

"The question is, if the parts are close by, like Sioux City or Sioux Falls, they may get here yet today. If not, they'd have to be shipped in and they'd be here in the morning. And it's a several-hour job," she said.

Haraldson said the leak was discovered when water began coming into the main lobby at approximately 9:45 p.m. Monday, which is thought to be close to the time the pipe broke.

"It was right where the night desk and the lounge area are," Haraldson said. "They started mopping it right away, so they noticed it very fast."

Coyote Village, which opened in 2010, has 175 units with 550 beds, including two- and four-bedroom options for students. The complex houses 494 residents and is located just south of the DakotaDome on the USD campus.

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