Volunteers help clear snow and ice off the edge of the Petersburg High School’s roof to allow for water drainage. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Petersburg’s schools reopened Thursday after being closed earlier this week due to heavy snow loads on the rooftops. The structures were deemed unsafe for students after leaks and other red flags were noticed when staff returned to the buildings after the winter break. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports:

Shovels full of snow were thrown off the roof of the high school Wednesday afternoon by dozens of staff and community volunteers. By the end of the day much of the snow load had been cleared. Most of snow on the elementary building was removed on Tuesday.  

Elementary principal Heather Conn says some staff returned to school for an in-service day on Monday and noticed things were not right.

“We weren’t able to get closets open, doors open, somebody got locked in the bathroom because the door wouldn’t open,” said Conn. “Ceiling panels coming out of the ceiling and water dripping down into and water dripping down into one of the classrooms, and bowed ceilings. It was pretty scary.”

Volunteers help shovel snow off the Rae C. Stedman Elementary School, Tuesday, January 4. (Photo courtesy of Heather Conn and Heidi Cabral)

It wasn’t just the elementary. Leaks were noticed at the middle and high school as well. Perhaps the worst building affected was the smaller district office building. Maintenance Director, Aaron Buller, said ice dams built up around the outer edges of the building and prevented any water from draining properly.

“It’s causing leaks on the inside of the walls and, of course, doing some damage to the sheet rock and the flooring inside,” Buller said.

The high school was built in the 70s and the middle school even earlier. The buildings weren’t meant to hold all that snow weight.

“Snow got heavy to press down on some of these structures inside the building itself so that’s a huge alarm to us.” Buller said.

The maintenance department is down to two staff persons. They worked over the holiday break but couldn’t keep up with the unusual snow fall. Petersburg had 68 inches in the month of December which is the fourth most on record for the month.

U.S. Forest Service Hydrologist, Heath Whitacre, says the weight of the snow depends on its density. He measured the snowfall on his own home recently at 33 inches. That mixed with the density equaled just over 40 pounds per square foot there.

“The big variable that drives the model is the density of the snow,” Whitacre said. “Was it a light snow, was it a packed snow, was it settled, is it a windblown snow?”

Whitacre says Petersburg has been seeing about a 25 percent density recently, so one foot of snow holds about three inches of water. He says required roof maintenance depends on how much weight a building can tolerate.

“Trying to figure out what your particular home is rated to versus how heavy that snow is on top of the roof, that’s kind of where the rubber meets the road, I think, in terms of your own risk assessment for whether you think you need to start shoveling or not,” said Whitacre.

Volunteer Kevin Hagan shovels snow off of the middle school roof, Wednesday, January 5. (Photo by Angela Denning)

Secondary principal Rick Dormer says the district wanted to play it safe when they decided to cancel school for a few days.

“Obviously, you know we love teaching, we love having kids do sports but student safety is absolutely the number one priority,” Dormer said. “It’s not going to collapse, we don’t believe anything was actually going to collapse but you just can’t take that kind of risk when you have those indicators.”

The work isn’t over at the school district. Heavy snow is forecast followed by rain and Buller says they are trying to prepare for it.

“We’re doing our best to try and remove snow and cut alley ways to drains from the building to the drain so water can actually find a path to get there and not leak up underneath the flashing against the wall and get inside and do some damage,” he said.

Petersburg’s public works department has also put out announcements for residents to clear snow off of their homes and other structures before the snow turns to rain.