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Mold forces St. Mary's students to move to cruise ship

Water has always been intrinsic to the experience of attending St. Mary's College of Maryland, but that legacy took a new turn this week when hundreds of students learned that mold would force them to spend the rest of the semester living on a 300-foot cruise ship docked beside campus on the St. Mary's River.

About 350 students had already moved to local hotels or reconfigured rooms last week because of mold in two dorms, which the Southern Maryland college blamed on damp conditions from Hurricane Irene and persistent rains. But on Tuesday, the public liberal arts college announced another move, this time to the Sea Voyager.

President Joseph Urgo said he was distressed at having so many underclassmen living far from campus and was on the lookout for alternatives when the college's sailing coach passed along a suggestion from an alumnus. There was a cruise ship for sale that was on its way from Maine to Virginia, the alumnus said, and maybe the owners would like to make a little rent money on the way.

Within two days, the deal for a new floating dorm was signed. "The river is not incidental to our campus," Urgo said. "So to have this problem that was caused by too much water and find a solution in the river, it was really amazing."

He said the boat, where 200 students will move this weekend and likely remain until the end of the semester, will cost about the same as the hotels and will keep students next to campus. Those who don't live on the boat will live in reconfigured land dorms and off-campus apartments.

On Thursday, the neighboring Historic St. Mary's City museum announced that the cruise ship would reside at its dock, which offers deeper water than the college's dock. The museum's executive director, Regina Faden, said hosting the ship seemed "the neighborly thing to do."

The total relocation could cost $1.5 million and the cleanup an additional $1 million, Urgo said, adding that the expense would be covered by reserve funds in the college's budget.

The accommodation is not unique. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, students and faculty from Tulane University spent five months living on the MV Dream, an 800-foot cruise ship.

"I love the idea that they're using a cruise ship," said James Baumann, director of communications for the Association of College and University Housing Officers. "If there's one thing I've learned in six years of working for this association, it's that housing people can be incredibly resourceful."

Usually, that ingenuity involves finding hotel rooms for students from an unexpectedly large class of incoming freshmen. But Urgo said the mold situation demanded extra creativity. On a campus where the water presents a constant backdrop, where students use library cards to check out kayaks, and the men's and women's sailing teams are nationally ranked, the river seemed an elegant solution.

"It's a very St. Mary's way to handle it," said Caroline Jackson, a freshman from Ellicott City. "For the president to say, 'Hey, I heard you needed a place to live, so I got you a boat' — how much cooler can you get than that?"

Jackson thought administrators were joking when they popped into the dining hall Tuesday evening and confirmed the plan. She has heard grumbling from some fellow students but said she and most of her friends are excited to trade 15- and 30-minute shuttle rides from area hotels for six weeks of cruise-ship life.

"I certainly never imagined that my freshman year would be this interesting," she said.

Jackson's mother, Valerie, isn't so enthusiastic about the Sea Voyager as a return for the $11,000 she's paying in room and board. She's frustrated that St. Mary's was not more aggressive about checking for mold and that the college waited several days to contact parents after the emergence of the problem.

"I guess it's an adventure when you're 18," said the Ellicott City resident. "But I don't feel the same about the school. I don't feel as trusting as I did initially."

Others have raised safety concerns, wondering whether students returning to the boat late at night could fall into the chilly river.

Urgo said residents of the Sea Voyager will live under the same rules as residents of the college's regular dorms, but a night patrolman will walk the ship between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. "We're very much aware of the safety concerns, and we're addressing them," the president said.

"I'm not really concerned," said Caroline Jackson. "You have to be pretty stupid to fall off a boat."

In the wake of the hurricane, students reported black mold in the campus' Prince George's and Caroline residence halls.

After attempts to clean the mold over fall break were unsuccessful, the college informed parents in an Oct. 18 email that 191 students would be moved from the first two floors of the dorms to local hotels.

"We have found our experience with mold in the residence halls this semester extremely frustrating, as have other colleges and universities in rain-soaked areas this season," wrote Urgo.

Urgo said the university planned to remove all materials affected by mold, including the ceilings and insulation in many rooms. He said all surfaces would then be cleaned in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency standards.

The next day, Urgo wrote to say that 159 more students, who lived on upper floors where mold was less prevalent, would also be moved as a precaution. Late last week, the migration commenced.

An inspection of the remaining residence halls found "no indication of any systemic mold that would require shutting down any additional housing facilities."

St. Mary's brought in a Baltimore physician, Dr. Hung Cheung, to field health questions. Urgo said about 12 students had suffered symptoms related to mold and that one had gone to the hospital for an X-ray of his lungs, which came back clean.

The college said the mold came from the Penicillium and Aspergillus groups, listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as two of the four most common indoor varieties.

For people who are sensitive to mold, exposure can cause stuffy noses, eye and skin irritation, and wheezing, the CDC says.

Katie Dreyer, a student from Hereford who said the mold had made her sick, lauded the move to the Sea Voyager.

"It is far more of a disruption to be in hotels, disconnected from our community and fellow students for the entire semester," she wrote in an "open conversation" posted on the college's website. "I think moving to the boat is a great idea. I would live in a closet if it meant being able to live back on campus!"

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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