WOONSOCKET – After a three-day operation to clear dangerously heavy snow loads from the rooftops of public schools, classes are set to resume Tuesday for the first time since last Thursday – weather permitting, of course.
Although no snow-related structural damage has been detected, Planning Director Joel Mathews said officials now know with some certainty just how stressed the school roofs were. Using sophisticated equipment to measure and weigh snow, structural engineers from Camp Dresser McKee determined that the load-supporting capacity of every roof in the school system was maxed out or worse.
“They're designed with a load-bearing capacity of 30 pounds per square foot,” he said. “The snow loads at all the school buildings were at or slightly exceeding that.”
Crews ranging from 45 to 75 men per day began shoveling the snow off the school roofs on Saturday and continued through yesterday afternoon before officials declared it was safe to reopen the buildings for classes. Most of the workers were day laborers or temporary help associated with two Providence firms, Eagle Cornice and American Labor Services.
Including the engineering diagnostics, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said the tab for the snow-removal operation will reach about $50,000, but he says the money represents the proverbial ounce of prevention.
“Certainly we protected the students,” said Fontaine. “Secondarily we protected our investment in our buildings.”
That includes the $80 million, twin middle schools off Hamlet Avenue that just opened a year ago. Though the buildings are practically brand new, officials say some of the most worrisome snow loads were discovered there, as well as on top of Woonsocket High School.
It wasn't just the snow that fell – there was plenty of that – but the snow that drifted on those flat rooftop plains that was cause for concern, officials say.
“We don't know why – maybe it's because the buildings are so high – but we had some additional drifts of snow on the roofs of those buildings that was a problem,” said Dr. Robert Gerardi, superintendent of schools.
The rooftop precautions come as the city saw a mini-wave of structural collapses due to heavy, rain-laden snow loads, including the latest on Sunday – the former Vermette's restaurant at Diamond Hill and Mendon roads. The roof above the function room caved in, causing the city to order the landmark structure – all of it – to be razed for safety reasons. Last week, two residential garages collapsed, as well as a large, corrugated steel warehouse that was part of the now-defunct Seville Dyeing complex in the Fairmount section.
The surprise school break began the morning after Henry Trudeau, the chief night custodian at Citizens Memorial School, noticed that the ceiling beams in the auditorium and the gymnasium – thick, muscular bands of oak – appeared to sagging in the middle. Using a laser imaging device, school officials later determined that some of the beams were bowed by as much as two inches.
After Trudeau informed Gerardi of the problem, the superintendent canceled school last Friday, while the mayor called in Building Inspector Christopher Chianese and a team of structural engineers from Camp Dresser McKee to assess the integrity of all 14 school buildings. After the assessments, Mathews began making calls to roofing companies to assemble snow removal crews on Saturday morning.
Since the crews removed the snow from Citizens Memorial School, the ceiling beams have straightened out and now appear normal, said Gerardi.
“The bow has lifted,” he said. “That's visual confirmation that what they did worked. Even though we're not engineers, we knew there was a serious problem when we saw the condition of those beams.”
Mathews was particularly impressed by the dedication of the snow removal crews. The tough, manual labor was the first work some of them had seen for quite some time, and they threw themselves into it, the planning director said. One snow-shoveler told him he was pleased to be a part of the operation because it might help someone else get the schooling and the career that had eluded him, forcing him to survive on temporary and, often, menial jobs.
To show their appreciation for a job well done, Sodexho, the school department's food service contractor, treated the snow removal crews to a dynamite supper at the middle school yesterday afternoon.
“You and I might spend a couple of hours out there clearing snow from our driveways and we're flat on our backs but these guys were at it for three days, eight hours a day, and they just kept on going,” said Mathews. “They deserve a pat on the back.”
Though schools are expected to reopen today, the weather could complicate morning travel, as it has so often this winter. The National Weather Service was calling for a messy mix of snow and rain overnight, continuing into this morning, with a possible accumulation of up to three inches before it all tapers off around noon.
Weather-wonks say this winter hasn't been one for the record books, but it has been characterized by an unusually steady fusillade of snow-making machines with little melting in between. For some 6,100 youngsters in the school system, that's resulted in seven days' worth of canceled classes, pushing the last day of school back to June 23.