Displaced students say they’re frustrated with the lack of communication from officials.
Lack of heat and low water pressure at residence halls prompted the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to relocate nearly 400 students to hotels over the weekend. While the move was an effort to help students living on campus, some say the experience has been anything but smooth.
Junior Charm Howard has been sharing a queen size bed with two sorority sisters at a Little Rock hotel and said she is frustrated with the lack of communication.
“They’re emailing us letting us know what’s going on back in Pine Bluff with the school, but we have no communication with nobody regarding us being down here,” Howard said.
Members of the entire Pine Bluff community began experiencing water pressure issues during last week’s snow storm. Water services are provided by Liberty Utilities who issued a statement Monday apologizing to customers who are continuing to experience significantly reduced water pressure. Crews are trying to identify waterline breaks and the company is working to bring additional personnel in to aid in the effort.
“The unfortunate situation here is this is one of those once-in-a-generation weather events where no one was spared, the entire region was impacted,” said George Cotton, vice chancellor for institutional advancement at UAPB.
Some heating units on campus depend on water, so the low water pressure impacted the ability to heat residence halls in addition to water usage. Water pressure dropped to such a low level that sanitary conditions became a concern, so when Liberty Utilities could not confirm how long the situation would last, Cotton said UAPB took emergency precautions.
Mandatory evacuations were implemented for the three affected residence halls and approximately 380 students were relocated to hotels in Pine Bluff and Little Rock. How long students will remain in temporary housing is uncertain because Liberty Utilities has not provided a timeline for repairs and Cotton said UAPB officials are not comfortable returning students to an unsafe or unsanitary environment.
“We are prepared to make sure that the needs of our students are taken care of for as long as it takes,” he said.
In a memo issued to the campus community Sunday, Chancellor Laurence Alexander said all students who were moved to off-campus accommodations are accompanied by university staff and are receiving meals from UAPB Dining Services or local restaurants. That has not been the case for everyone, Charm Howard said.
For example, Howard said while students at one hotel received pizza, students at her hotel did not. Howard has received snacks from members of the alumni association and has used her own money to purchase hot meals.
“I can understand it’s tough moving so many students at one time, but I feel like we’re really getting the unfair side of everything,” she said.
Cotton said he did not know there had been a problem with delivering food to students and said it was his understanding they would receive snacks in addition to meals. If issues persist, he wants to be notified personally.
“If students aren’t getting what they need, they should call me directly,” Cotton said.
Some students looking for food assistance have reached out to classmates like Kennedi Weston for help.
“They were just lost and confused because they don’t know what’s going on,” she said.
Weston lives off campus, but has temporarily relocated to her parents’ Little Rock home. She is the president of the university’s 4-H chapter and reached out to her advisor for ideas on how to help. Once they realized alumni had stepped in to help students in hotels, Weston turned her attention to students still living on campus.
“That’s when I found out some people that’s on campus didn’t have anything too, and that their cars are blocked because of the ice and things like that so they wasn’t able to leave,” she said. “So that’s why I hurried up and called the pantry so we could help the campus too,” Weston said.
The Lions’ Cabinet Food Pantry had students fill out an intake form so they could pack a sufficient number of boxes with food and deliver them Monday. While Weston knows her classmates are looking for answers, she also understands administrators don’t have all of the answers because they’re waiting on more information from the utility company.
“The school is trying to help, but right now we just have so many unknown answers so it’s looking like our university is not trying to help, but they really are,” she said.
Ariel Williams is another student waiting things out at her parents’ home in Little Rock and said she’s one of the lucky ones.
“I’m blessed to say that I have the option to come home and a lot of students don’t have that option,” she said.
Williams lives on campus and said she was confused about the temporary housing situation. She said the relocation wasn’t initially presented as mandatory. When evacuations were underway Saturday, Williams missed the first round of busses, but was under the impression they would come back for more students. After waiting several hours, she got in touch with university officials who placed her in a functioning room on campus for the night. However, Williams said her mom was disappointed with how things were being handled, she came and took her home to Little Rock.
“The communication wasn’t as good as it should have been,” Williams said.
Because students were given short notice about the relocation effort, Vice Chancellor Cotton said buses made multiple pickups and officials “made every conceivable effort to make sure students were notified.” In addition to sending staff door to door in impacted residence halls, Cotton said they also sent electronic and written notifications.
“If someone did not get the information it was an oversight definitely not an intention, but we made every effort possible to notify students,” he said.
Williams expected more communication from the chancellor and more consistent updates from officials generally. When that didn’t happen, she turned to social media to get updates from other students. It was frustrating that it felt like no one knew what was going on, she said.
“I just hope things get better in the future. I hope measures are created for stuff like this to be prevented because it’s changed how I feel about the university a lot,” Williams said.
The situation has been “a true learning experience in dealing with disasters” and Cotton said officials are already implementing measures to deliver information to students more quickly. In addition to updating the campus bulletin that goes out to students every day, officials intend to send direct texts and other electronic communications as well as have at least one resident assistant on hand to communicate directly with students.
“Moving forward we will be making sure there’s someone available to provide immediate, real-time communication to students letting them know exactly what’s happening,” Cotton said.