On the morning of Friday, Feb. 2, the residents of the upper floors of Ziv 129—also known as Ziv C and Mazer Hall—were confused by an unpleasant odor rising from their sinks, bathrooms and showers setting throughout their suites. For the ground floor residents, however, the situation was far more alarming. Sewage water had risen from the bathrooms, seeping into the carpeted floors and spreading through common areas and some students’ rooms. Students on the ground floor quickly evacuated the building and urged upper floor residents to stop using water, and Facilities Services employees soon arrived on site.
Max Kappler ’25, the Community Advisor for Ziv 129, told The Brandeis Hoot that he understood the flooding to have been caused by a backup in the campus sewage main: “… [Because] Ziv 129 was at a lower level than other dorms, [the sewage system] backed up for us before anyone else.” To note, Ziv Quad, located at the southern end of Lower Campus, is composed of six-person suite-style residences that are colloquially referred to as “Zivs.” Ziv 129 is physically located farthest away and lowest in altitude from other residence buildings.
In an interview with The Hoot, Paul Weir ’25, one of the residents of Ziv 129’s ground floor, recounted his experience of the flooding. Weir was in a class when the flooding occurred, but received multiple calls from one of his suitemates “at 11:45 [a.m.] or so.” His suitemate urged Weir and other residents of their suite to “come over here … and get [your belongings] off the floor” as there was “sewage coming out of the shower drain.” Weir and another suitemate of his with whom he was in class quickly made their way over to Ziv 129, where Weir noted that he “only saw … a single worker there.” Weir was unsure if this individual was affiliated with Brandeis Facilities or if they were an external sewage maintenance worker. Weir told The Hoot that the Area Coordinator (AC) for Ziv Quad was also present. Weir and his suitemate entered their living space: “[We] had to wade through the water in our shoes.” Weir had no skin contact with the sewage water, though his suitemate had been wearing open-toed shoes. Neither individual had received a warning from the university. “It was not a pretty sight,” Weir told The Hoot. “I spent [30 or 45 minutes] getting all my stuff off the floor, getting things out of the Ziv, helping [my suitemate] get [her belongings on top of other furniture] and then disposing of a bunch of stuff that was gone.”
Weir estimated that he had received the calls from his suitemate who had been home around “five minutes after [the flooding] started, and it took … at least 30 to 45 minutes for them to get the drain to stop coming up.” He further told The Hoot that “by the endpoint, the back of the Ziv … probably had, like, four or five inches of water” that was visibly contaminated with feces. After confirming the flooding had ceased, Weir left the area to eat lunch and returned “[between] 2:30 and 3 [p.m.].” Upon returning, Weir and the other ground floor residents were told that items that had been deemed contaminated were going to be disposed of. “They said if you wanted to get your stuff, you needed to go in there [to do so].” Weir further told The Hoot that maintenance workers present were wearing hazmat suits and goggles, which pushed him and others to inquire about safety measures for students who would be reentering their suites to collect their belongings. According to Weir, residents were provided only with N95 masks and plastic gloves. “They didn’t have any … footwear protection, and they weren’t gonna help us go in there and get our stuff.” Weir noted that at this point, the process of draining and vacuuming the sewage water and waste material in the suites had been underway, though “there was still quite a bit [of water] in there.”
Weir explained to The Hoot that he and several of his suitemates experienced serious damage to their belongings: “… a bunch of people had … all their clothes ruined. One of my roommates had a guitar, that is gone. Everybody’s shoes, obviously, and [many things] in the common room.” He added that it was around this time that Ziv 129 ground floor residents received an email stating that they would “only be able to claim things [for insurance] … that were on the floor, that had been destroyed, and that we had photos of.” Weir expressed concern that in order to reimburse lost or destroyed items, he and other residents would need to put their health in jeopardy by entering their contaminated suites “without the proper gear” in order to catalog them. Weir and other residents continued to pack up belongings and move them outside of the building: “I was probably wading through [contaminated water] another hour, hour and a half, at least.” Weir expressed confusion at the university’s messaging at the time: “The messaging we got from the school was really inconsistent … [the Department of Community Living (DCL)] told us that we could claim anything that was destroyed, but the [AC] sent an email saying we could only claim stuff on the floor, and … some other faculty members my roommates talked to said we could claim anything.”
Ground floor residents were also concerned for much of the day about where they would be housed. “At the same time, it wasn’t clear where we were going to live,” explained Weir. “The only reason I know I got housing was because some of my roommates went down to [the DCL office].” Weir also expressed dissatisfaction with the way that DCL communicated its relocation process with affected residents: “One of my roommates did not get housing … he said ‘oh, I’ll just live at home.’ [After he realized that] we were going to be outside of the Ziv for more than a few days … we emailed [DCL] an hour later [asking if there were] any rooms available, and they said [they were unable to provide housing].”
“We didn’t get any contact from the Brandeis health services,” noted Weir. “My friends that did have skin exposure [to the contaminated water] … went to the doctor independently.” He added that though Ziv 129 ground floor residents had been moved into housing in nearby Ridgewood, “we didn’t have any help moving in … we were tasked pretty much entirely with … getting all of our things from [Ziv 129] and [carrying] them ourselves up to the temporary housing.” Weir added, however, that Vice President of Student Affairs Andrea Dine was present, and “personally helped … bring us toiletries and things, that was very kind.”
Weir mentioned to The Hoot that the university had provided information to the affected residents regarding making insurance claims. “We were told that everything that we buy had to be on Amazon, so anything [that was not on Amazon], you wouldn’t be able to claim.” Weir further claimed that “a lot of stuff got thrown out before we could take pictures of it … there was just a lot of stuff we did not have time to take photos of,” meaning that residents were unable to make claims on some of their belongings.
Weir told The Hoot that he and his suitemates had not been told when they would be moving back into Ziv 129, expressing skepticism as to the university’s ability to ensure that the space would be livable. “My roommates are on edge because there’s no timeline as to when we’re gonna move in, and there’s no indication that … health-wise, the Ziv is going to be up to standard when we get back.”
Regarding the way that the university communicated with affected students during the flooding, Weir told The Hoot: “I think they’ve handled the process of coordinating with people that got affected horribly … there really has been no concern at all for the health and safety of those affected by this. I think it was absolutely unreasonable to expect students individually to go in and take photos, and to get their stuff [out of the living space] … There absolutely were not enough people at the site helping us. [The university] should have sent people to help us move [our items into Ridgewood].” He emphasized that he was not confident in Brandeis’ ability to confirm that the space would be safe to live in without “pressure from the Waltham health department or the state.”
When asked for final comments, Weir stated that “I hope the university does … what it’s supposed to do … I miss being home.”
When reached out to for comment by The Hoot, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Timothy Touchette wrote that “[DCL] has moved impacted students into temporary housing, we are keeping them informed about restoration and cleanup of Ziv 129, and have coordinated with students to have professionals move all of their belongings out of the impacted space.” Touchette added that “[w]e are replacing students’ damaged items and have offered professional cleaning services for soft textiles,” and that “we have arranged for any students who wish to remain in their temporary housing assignment for the remainder of the spring semester to do so.”
Indeed, in an email sent to the residents of Ziv 129’s ground floor on Feb. 7, which was obtained by The Hoot, Touchette informed the relocated students that they would be able to remain in their temporary housing for the duration of the spring 2024 semester. Touchette’s email stated that “due to the unique nature of this situation, [DCL] has negotiated the option for students to remain in their temporary space through the end of the spring semester.” Additionally, Touchette informed the relocated students that “any room rate increase would be covered by the University, but we are unable to make any changes to your meal plan at this time (e.g. you cannot lower your plan if you move to an apartment).”
Regarding next steps for the cleaning process of the affected living spaces, Touchette wrote to The Hoot that “restoration in the impacted suites [will] involve wall repair, carpet replacement, and the replacement of impacted furniture. We will work diligently with our partners to restore the suites and will only allow students to return once the spaces are confirmed to be safe.” Notably, Touchette had been asked by The Hoot how the health and safety of the affected spaces would be ensured by DCL but did not comment further.
The Hoot also reached out to Student Union President Noah Risley ’24, who confirmed they were “in contact with both administration and affected students.” Risley further commented that “[w]hat happened on the first floor of Ziv 129 was, first off, really gross[, but] secondly, awful that this happened to our students.” Risley commended the affected students for “their good spirit and how they’ve handled it. I really admire them for how well they’ve adjusted.” Risley also thanked “the Department of Student Affairs for assisting in communication and clarifying policies around reimbursement, cleaning, etc.” Lastly, Risley noted that “Waltham has had some city-wide sewage problems in the past and has a page on their website (https://www.city.waltham.ma.us/water-sewer-division/files/fyi-flushable-wipes-arent-flushable) decrying so-called ‘flushable wipes.’ So that might be an avenue for the Student Union, The Hoot, or the school, to explore.”
Editor’s Note: Editor-in-Chief Cooper Gottfried ’25, who was a resident of the ground floor of Ziv 129, did not participate in the writing or editing of this article.