Officials at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College say the safety and health of their students was the first concern after the recent flood left the campus devastated.
But students and parents are outraged that they were not allowed to remove their personal belongings when the flood receded.
“My daughter had been out of the country when the flood went through Miami,” Lakelani Suiaunoa said. “How is it that the maintenance department or whomever at the college gutted (her) apartment without anyone having knowledge.”
Suiaunoa is the mother of two NEO A&M campus residents. She said that many of her daughter's personal affects were out of the reach of floodwaters and could not have been contaminated.
“I understand several students had cash stashed away and was eager to get in to retrieve it only to find out that everything was gone,” Suiaunoa said.
According to Christen Stark, NEO public relations director, campus officials were informed by professionals at Liberty Occupational Health Management, an environmental agency, that the level of contamination was so high in the campus apartments that it posed a serious health risk.
“The items in the first floor apartments were seriously contaminated,” Stark said. “We have a responsibility to the health and safety of our students and we could not allow them to be exposed to this type of contamination.”
Rob Thompson, president of Liberty OHM, said the levels of sewage in the apartments posed a serious risk for contagious disease.
“Hepatitis was our main concern,” Thompson said.
While most of the students were appreciative that the school was concerned for their health, many of them argued that the school did not have the right to make the decision to destroy their personal belongings without consulting them first.
One student said his father's wedding ring, some bonds, money and pictures were in a metal box on the second floor of the campus apartments and school officials allowed his belongings to be destroyed.
“There was no flood damage to my apartment,” the NEO student said.
According to Stark, air quality was also a concern and many of the apartments were gutted because of the contaminants in the air.
Felix Ontiveros, representing TRC Restoration, said the sewage left behind when the floodwater receded was 1 to 2 inches deep and covered everything in the apartments.
“Everything was very contaminated in those apartments,” Ontiveros said. “It would not have been safe for those students to return to retrieve their belongings.”
Ontiveros said that, if contractors who cleaned the debris from the apartments found items that were salvageable, they were given to the campus police.
“We did our best to save whatever we could,” Ontiveros said. “But, you have to understand what kind of mess we were dealing with.”
Ontiveros said the contents of the apartments settled to the floor when the water receded, heaping wet paper, fabric and sewage into piles.
“What was recovered was handed over to campus police,” Ontiveros said.
According to authorities, very little was turned in to the campus police department and what personal items were salvaged have been returned to the students.
Students say personal property is not the only thing they were left without since they fled the flood on July 2.
Deek Brookhart said many students were left “homeless and hungry.”
“The college basically told us to find our own shelter and food, yet to attend our summer classes as scheduled,” Brookhart said. “Some students can't work due to the flood, thus leaving them with no money for food or a decent place to stay.”
Brookhart said many students were dependent upon local shelters for the first two weeks.
According to Red Cross Volunteer Nellie Kelly, there were still NEO students in the shelter over the weekend who had not found temporary housing.
Some college employees opened their homes to students and various organizations throughout the community also offered housing to the displaced students, according to Stark.
“If there are still students that have not found temporary housing, they need to contact me,” Stark said. “We can't help them if we don't know they need help.”
Stark can be reached at the office of public relations or by calling her at 540-6211.
The college is sponsoring a clothing drive for displaced students.
Students affected by the flood can visit the college library during regular business hours where clothing donations have been stored.