Roof collapse rattles families

School reopens; 7 classes moved

(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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Tara Weng remembered the midday fright when part of the roof collapsed at her daughter’s elementary school.

“I was outside getting snow off my own roof and ran in the house to get some lunch or something, and I got a message on the phone saying students have been evacuated,’’ Weng recalled. “My heart was racing. [I thought] what the heck’s going on? Where’s my daughter? When you have a 7-year-old daughter, you don’t expect this kind of thing to happen.’’

In many ways, Georgetown’s Perley Elementary School represented what could have happened in other towns and school districts. With their maintenance and snow budgets already overburdened, and no January thaw to melt the snow between major storms, the heavy accumulation on school roofs forced many districts to cancel classes.

The number of roof collapses or buildings reporting significant structural damage in the state reached 175 in the middle of this week, according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency website.

Among the school districts that returned students to school this week were Methuen and Hamilton-Wenham. The Hamilton-Wenham School Committee voted Thursday night to hold school from Feb. 22-25 — previously scheduled as school vacation week (Feb. 21 is President’s Day) — and also on May 27, which had been scheduled as a professional day.

Georgetown schools, including the Perley School, were all open again by Wednesday, according to the school administration’s website.

For parents and officials at the Perley Elementary School, which serves students from preschool through first grade, the good news was that nobody was hurt after a portion of the roof collapsed Feb. 3 because of heavy snow.

“My first reaction was thank God she’s OK, and everyone’s OK,’’ Weng said. “They evacuated everyone effectively, good job. My second reaction was disappointment. Like, why did this happen?’’

Parents, administrators, town offi cials, and others in Georgetown were trying to answer those questions last week, while trying to determine how to move forward with the school year despite the fact that seven Perley classrooms and the cafeteria are now out of commission.

Georgetown Town Administrator Mike Farrell said that the contractor clearing snow from the Perley school roof estimated that it weighed 112,000 pounds.

Exactly when the breach occurred is not known, but late in the morning on Feb. 3, a neighbor called the school to report the collapse of the pitched roof over one section of the building.

In 1975, the pitched roof was built over the circa 1950s reinforced concrete roof, which did not collapse in the accident.

Farrell noted the concrete roof’s drains still work, preventing additional water damage.

Students were evacuated and the school was closed — along with the middle school-high school — while work crews cleared snow from roofs. Contractor Alan J. Aulson, a Georgetown parent and a member of the town’s School Building Committee, organized workers for snow removal, and inmates from Essex County House of Correction in Middleton also helped.

“We all take the heat for [not shoveling the roof],’’ said Superintendent Carol Jacobs. “It always holds that somebody’s got to be held responsible for something like this, even though, frankly, it was an accident and everyone I talk with says it wasn’t predictable. It’s not a flat roof, for one thing. There were no indications.’’

Ironically, she said, a contractor hired by the schools to clear the roof had recently rescheduled the Georgetown job because others were deemed more critical.

“Certainly, not only did it give Georgetown pause to think about the future, but clearly these other schools that are now canceling are looking at it and saying, ‘Wow, we might be in the same situation; we’ve got to do something about this,’ ’’ Jacobs said.

The assessment of damage is not yet complete, but Farrell said the building will at the very least require a new roof. The town’s insurance will cover the cost, as well as the cost of the portable classrooms that will be moved to the Perley grounds and used for the remainder of the school year.

The cost of the rest of the snow removal will run $100,000 to $150,000, said Farrell. Officials are hoping for state or federal emergency reimbursement to cover the expenses.

On Tuesday, school officials met with about 100 parents to discuss the plan for installing four portable classrooms and finding space elsewhere in the school for the seven classes displaced by the collapse.

Until the portable classrooms are in place, students will share space in the school. Half the gym will be used as a cafeteria.

After the meeting, Kent Richards, a parent of two elementary students, including one at Perley, said he was satisfied with the school’s response and solution.

“They are doing what they can,’’ he said. “You can’t fight Mother Nature. You just need to adapt and overcome, and I think they are doing the best they can, as quickly as they can.’’