Heavy rain and rust blamed for Jefferson County High School building collapse

7:46 PM, Jul 8, 2013   |    comments
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(WBIR - Jefferson County)  On Monday the sun finally broke through the clouds after several days of heavy rain in Jefferson County.  The sunshine also shed light on the devastation the downpours caused at a collapsed building on the campus of Jefferson County High School.

Administrators are in search of classroom space after the roof of Building 8 at JCHS buckled under the weight of a pool of water on Sunday.

"My first thought is what we are going to do with the students. We have nine teachers in this building," said Dr. Charles Edmonds, Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools.  "The students come back to class in three and a half weeks, so we're going to have to scramble to find a solution."

Edmonds said more than a foot of water pooled on the flat roof of Building 8.  The drainage pipes were cleaned a month ago, but Edmonds said the infrastructure itself was inadequate.

"This building was constructed in the 1970s and had four-inch drainage pipes for the roof.  The amount and size of the pipes would not pass codes for new buildings today, but it was allowed back when this facility was built."

Building 8 houses the vocational classrooms for courses such as auto repair, so moving to another facility can seriously impact an instructor's ability to teach the class. 

The campus at JCHS is already short on space due to long overdue renovations underway in the main classroom building.  That construction began after the county and school board finally settled a nearly 15-year tug-of-war to fund the work.  In May 2012, Jefferson County Mayor Alan Palmieri outlined 16 reasons why he would not sign off on an approved bond plan to provide roughly $25 million for renovations at the high school.  At the time, Edmonds specifically told 10News about the urgent need to replace the roof at the high school.

"We'd like to have the bonds sold immediately because we'd like to be building out there. We have a roof that needs to come off and a new roof go on because we have leaks," said Edmonds in May 2012.

Mayor Palmieri eventually provided his required signature and the school board was given the money to move forward with the project.  The renovations will take more than two years. 

"Everyone knew this was a need.  Even those who questioned the level of funding recognized something needed to be done with this facility for over a decade now," said Michael Phagan, director of facilities for Jefferson County Schools.  "It was just a matter of some disagreement over the best way to pay for it."

With the $25 million in-hand, the school system recently conducted preliminary work on Building 8 that uncovered issues with the structure.

"We did infrared testing to see if it [Building 8] would support a new roof. There's metal there in the decking that was detected that was deteriorating.  We think if it didn't cause [the collapse], it contributed to it. You can see the rust on the deck where the wall and roof caved in.  I think it was a combination of the drains not being large enough, too much water fell, and we had a deteriorating deck."

Edmonds says the timing of the collapse is fortunate because it happened on a weekend while the building was empty.  Furthermore, the new Freshman Academy less than a mile away is set to open in a few weeks.

"We have the Freshman Academy next door, so we could try to squeeze some space there.  We will work it out by the end of the week as to where to house the students," said Edmonds.

The school system does have insurance for its buildings. Edmonds said adjusters were at the campus Monday, but he did not know a timeline for assessing damage estimates.  The Jefferson County School Board meets this Thursday night.

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