The alarm sounded from the Creative Arts Building in the dark hours between night and morning, as water pressure sensors built into the pipes alerted the Fire Department of a problem at SF State.
“I was called by campus dispatch, which is the police, at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Aaron Nevatt, the University’s director of environmental health and safety, said. “They told me there was a flood in the building, and that it was bad.”
By the time Nevatt made it over to campus, the sheer amount of water flooding the Creative Arts Building was far worse than he had imagined.
“We can only estimate,” he said. “But it was well over 125,000 gallons of water released in the beginning.”
The water had over an hour to spread through the building before anyone had a chance to stop it. The damage was done.
More than 20 classes were relocated Jan. 30 after a burst pipe shot gallons of water at fire hose speed, with water gushing, flowing and seeping into the broadcast, music and theater departments.
The estimated cost of the damages may be as high as $800,000, said school official Michael Martin, the executive director of the safety and risk management department. The school will pay $100,000 of that as a deductible, and the rest will be taken care of by SF State’s insurance.
The Creative Arts Building is home to many classes, but mainly houses the broadcast, theatre and music departments. Belfor USA,a company contracted with the California State University system, began drying out the watered building the day of the accident, while classes were relocated. Less than five days later, only three classes were displaced.
At the time of publication, Belfor USA is still in the process of drying the building to prevent mold.
Nevatt’s first job was to make sure there was no one in danger in the building. With the safety of employees secure, his next task was to secure the equipment in the building.
“There are huge transformers that run lights in the theater,” Nevatt said. “If those short out, those could damage hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lighting equipment. We had to find those and power those down.”
And find them he did. The lighting and electronic equipment was saved from harm.
“The University in the past was slow to respond (to other incidents),” Creative Arts Building coordinator Steve Lahey said. “This time they were right on the money.”
The University even sent out a recorded phone call informing all students of the accident.
“I got an automated call that woke me at seven in the morning, I was planning on sleeping until like 1 p.m.” Will Caldwell, a theater major with classes in the flooded building, said. “My class wasn’t even cancelled, I was hoping to skip it.”
By all accounts, SF State administration responded at record speed, though no one could possibly move faster than the rushing water. The broadcast and music department’s equipment may have emerged largely unscathed — but not every department got off so easy.
The theatre department’s props did not escape the flooding water.
“Pretty much all of it was rained on,” Torben Torp-Smith, prop shop supervisor in the Creative Arts Building, said. “I wasn’t looking forward to coming to work, I’ll tell you that.”
In the basement under the Creative Arts Building is a labyrinth of concrete corridors housing several thousand theater props.
“I was scared when the leak happened,” theater major Rachel Goldberg said, who was busy gathering metal rods for a set she and a classmate were building. “The antique furniture may have been damaged. It’s priceless.”
The furniture in the prop’s antique collection includes Victorian settees (a kind of loveseat) that Torp-Smith values at a $1000 each, for starters. Beside the settees lay Victorian clocks, tabletop radios from the 1930s, bomb casings, and hand made prop sarcophagi.
“All this stuff is irreplaceable,” Torp-Smith said. “There are at least a couple of dozen rare pieces.”
Whether or not he can assess the damage in time for the insurers is still unclear.
Torp-Smith began cataloguing the pieces in the collection three years ago and still hasn’t finished.
Not every piece in the collection is an antique. From a cursory look, he said, mattresses and book collections had molded over, as well as smaller props that were on the concrete floors. The valve broke at 4:30 a.m., leaving plenty of time for mold to grow before cleanup could start.
He hadn’t yet verified the damage to the collection of antiques, including the Victorian props.
It will take him at least until summer to fully catalogue the damage to the thousands of props in the collection, Torp-Smith said.
Insurance companies don’t run on the same deadline, though. SF State administration said that despite those challenges, the full cost of damages will be reimbursed.
“Yes, the estimate includes all losses and is still rough at this point for the reason you mentioned,” Martin said. “Some losses may yet be identified. The insurer has toured the impacted areas, understands that some losses will be identified over time, and supports our efforts to identify and report our losses in a reasonable manner and time frame.”
The current Creative Arts Building is aging, with an equally old infrastructure, according to the facilities department. However, a new Creative Arts Center is being built near Lake Merced, estimated to cost at least $260 million, giving hope of avoiding future catastrophe. The catch, though, is that it’s barely just broken ground on construction, and may take a decade to complete.
The Creative Arts Building was completed in 1956, and though it had renovations as recently as 1972, it still has a decades old infrastructure, said Charles Meyer, senior director of facilities and service enterprise at SF State.
“The life expectancy of the building is about 50 years,” Meyer said. That includes the pipes and valves inside of it. “Some of this stuff was made when we used vacuum tubes for electricity.”
It was especially frustrating he said, because they had just finished replacing all the fire hoses in the building. Unfortunately, the valve that burst was behind a wall and therefore not part of their regular maintenance.
“We don’t poke holes (in the wall) to look at it,” he said. They’re the type of pipes that don’t require regular maintenance, and when the pipes are breaking down, its a sign that the building is probably ready to go as well, he said.
Upgrading the current building is fiscally unfeasible, Meyer said, and needed disability upgrades would be near impossible to add into the current square footage of the building.
The new Creative Arts Center will take at least nine years to build, though, Marilyn Lanier, senior associate vice president of the department of Physical Planning & Development, said earlier this year.
Robert Nava, vice president of University advancement, was contacted for an update to the timetable, and has not yet responded to emails or phone calls.
Until the school can work out state bond measures and additional funding for the new Creative Arts Center on Font Blvd., Torp-Smith will have to do the best he can to protect his props from the next possible flood.
Importantly though, Meyer said this type of flood is a “really rare thing,” a once in a 25-year occurrence, though he said that the pipes behind walls are not regularly tested.
Torp-Smith will need to take Meyer’s word on that. A new building to store his props won’t be around for at least another decade.