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Snow loads on roofs wreaking havoc on schools

February 5, 2011

WOONSOCKET – As engineers began trying to determine whether snow-laden roofs throughout the public school system were at risk of collapse yesterday, officials said it was too soon to say whether students could return to classes by Monday.
“We're fortunate we're initiating this on a Friday,” said Schools Supt. Robert Gerardi. “We have the weekend to work on it. Hopefully we'll have this solved by Monday.”
The structural probe went into motion late Thursday after Henry Trudeau, the supervisor of night custodians at Citizens Memorial School, noticed that some of the massive oak ceiling beams in the cafeteria and the gymnasium appeared to be buckling. Trudeau said some of the beams were bowed in the middle by more than two inches.
“I went and told Dr. Gerardi, 'I think the roof is sagging,'” Trudeau said as he pointed toward the beams in the cafeteria. “I'm in here every night and I used to do construction work. I know when it's sagging.”
Gerardi promptly canceled classes systemwide Friday, then contacted Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and Building Inspector Christopher Chianese. The upshot is that the city's on-retainer engineering company, Camp Dresser McKee, has deployed a team of workers to assess the structural integrity of 13 schools and the McFee Administration Building – every building in the system.
Gerardi said yesterday it's unclear how long the work would take or what the results would be. Officials were hopeful Citizens Memorial and other schools in the system could get a clean bill of health just by having snow removed from their flat roofs.
One potential glitch in the plan for a speedy resolution: more snow forecast for today.
Citizens Memorial is one of three schools in the system that are of particular concern, Gerardi said, because they are architectural clones that were built around the same time – 1960. The others are the Globe Park and Bernon Elementary schools.
“My reaction is surprise,” Citizens Principal Nancy Zambarano said. “I did not notice the sagging beams in the cafeteria area, but I'm very glad someone did.”
Some 250 students in Grades 3-5 attend Citizens Memorial, Zambarano said. If it turns out that the school is closed for a prolonged period of time, she says there is room at the Pothier School, next door, to absorb some, but not all of them.
The closure of school Friday marked the sixth weather-related cancellation of classes this season. Gerardi said the last day of school on the original school calendar was set for June 14. After a spate of winter storms that began in late December, the school year is now on track to end June 22.
Though forecasters say snow accumulations haven't set any records, the temperatures haven't gotten above freezing long enough between storms to result in much melting. So snow just keeps piling up, storm after storm. For many rooftops, it's a burden too heavy to bear.
The Capt. Isaac Paine Elementary School in Foster already sustained a partial roof collapse, forcing students to be transferred to neighboring districts. Since Tuesday night, at least two garages and an old corrugated steel dyehouse in Woonsocket have also caved in. Miraculously, no one has been injured in any of these incidents, though some motor vehicles have been crushed.
The problem at Citizens Memorial came to light after Education Commissioner Deborah Gist advised school departments to be on the lookout for at-risk rooftops. Among urban school districts with older buildings, Pawtucket also called in structural engineers and closed down its schools on Friday.
Trudeau said when he went up on the roof of Citizens Memorial earlier this week to clear drains he measured 24 inches of snow and later he noticed the warped ceiling beams inside.
With so much snow collecting on school rooftops, Gerardi said he is concerned that even the most modern buildings in the system might be propping up about as much as they can handle.
“There's concern all of our buildings might be nearing capacity,” he said.
Even if problems are confined to one school, Gerardi said all the other schools in the system might remain closed until the issues are resolved. Keeping all schools on one scheduling track would be the most cost-effective way of dealing with transportation and incur the least amount of red tape, he said.
Whatever work ends up needing to be done will surely involve, at least as a first step, the removal of snow from stressed rooftops, said Mayor Fontaine. The question is where to deploy manpower first, and that's what the engineers from Camp Dresser McKee were trying to figure out yesterday.
“I think we have a very capable plan in place at this point,” said the mayor. “We've got one of the best teams of engineers in the state working on this and it may turn out we're in decent shape. Taking these precautions is the safest path at this point.”
Fontaine said that once areas are prioritized for snow removal, the work will be laborious and low-tech. Shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows – and muscle – will be the order of the day.
“There's no way we're going to be able to put any heavy equipment up on those roofs,” he said.

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