The fire-damaged residence hall at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse will stay closed for the rest of the semester as repairs and cleaning continue, according to an announcement Thursday from university officials.
UW-L's main focus is finding new homes for the hundreds of Drake Hall residents who were evacuated from the building when a fire erupted in the basement at 4:23 a.m. Sunday.
UW-L officials first predicted students would return within days. Now, they say it will likely take two or three months of work before the dorm is inhabitable.
"This is, of course, not welcome news for our students," UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow said.
Students will be allowed to remove their belongings from the building beginning today.
Temperatures during the blaze reached 800 degrees Fahrenheit in the basement, enough to melt away the front of a vending machine and the building's fire alarm system.
It's because of that same alarm system and a prompt evacuation that students escaped unharmed, Gow said.
"I don't think people grasp how deadly this could have been," he said.
Investigators narrowed the origin of the blaze to a couch in the basement but have not officially determined the cause.
University officials decided to close the building for the semester after learning the extent of repairs needed to make the building safe. Staff must evaluate and repair any damage to Drake's electrical and mechanical systems, and each room in the building needs to be cleaned of a heavy smoke odor.
Engineers are still measuring the structural integrity of the building.
"That can do some bad things to your structure," Gow said. "But that's not a concern."
Most students have found refuge with family and friends after leaving Drake behind, and UW-L made temporary accommodations for the others.
But temporary housing won't do, given the extended deadline for repairs, Gow said in a Thursday morning email to students. UW-L officials are working with each student to determine housing preferences.
"We're going to try to deal with all 271 students as individuals," UW-L Director of Residence Life Nick Nicklaus said.
The university has found about 100 empty spaces in other residence halls, including converted lounges, and about 50 students have volunteered to "triple up" with former Drake students, Nicklaus said.
Nearby Western Technical College will open up 11 living spaces for UW-L students, and a number of community members and UW-L faculty and staff have also volunteered their homes as alternative housing.
The university is calling on volunteers to help with two "move out" weekends aimed at emptying the building by Feb. 12.
The university will cancel housing contracts for students who decide to live off campus, Nicklaus said. Officials are still trying to determine how to reimburse the housing costs of Drake students living in an overflow situation or who may have to commute to school.
It's too early to tell how much the Drake repairs and other fire-related fallout will ultimately cost.
"Have you ever heard of a situation where 271 people needed to be moved like that?" Gow said, snapping his fingers. "It's pretty unusual."