Despite warnings from city officials about the dangers of roofs overburdened with snow last month, Bend-La Pine Schools waited to do most of its clearing until after the collapse of an elementary school gym roof.
Before the Jan. 12 collapse of the gym roof at Highland Magnet at Kenwood School, the district had started working on snow-load removal on Jan. 11, at only one school: Pilot Butte Middle School. Instead, Bend-La Pine staff’s work on roofs was to clear ice dams and snow to stop leaks, according to details and a timeline the school district released Thursday — details that contradict what the district previously implied publicly, that snow was being removed from roofs of buildings for up to five weeks earlier.
Following the roof collapse of the gym, the district canceled school for its 18,000 students, working long hours over more than a week to remove snow from all of its roofs to make sure the buildings were safe to re-enter.
For three days before the gym roof collapsed — from Jan. 9-11 — the city of Bend, Bend Fire Department, Bend Police and Deschutes County sent out a number of warnings about snow loads on roofs. Bend Fire Department sent out a public service announcement Jan. 9 advising the community to remove snow from roofs. The advisory listed several reasons to remove snow, including that “excess snow on the roof can weaken and potentially collapse a structure, particularly an older building with a shallow pitched roof.”
The gym at Highland Magnet at Kenwood School had a flat roof. It had no structural upgrades after it was built in 1950, according to the school district. In 2015, A-TECH Northwest, a roofing consultant, rated the roof condition poor “but did not identify any potential structural issues” with it, according to the district’s timeline.
The gym was demolished the day of the roof collapse.
Three days before that, on Jan. 9, the school district had its roofing consultant assess roof snow loads.
Snow loads versus leaks
At least twice in communications with The Bulletin in January, Julianne Repman, Bend-La Pine’s communications and safety director, said snow removal from roofs had been going on for some time before the gym roof collapse. Some crews had been working eight- to 10-hour days for up to five weeks to clear snow from rooftops, Repman said Jan. 15, according to Bulletin reports.
But on Thursday, the timeline of maintenance work released by the school district showed more detail about the kind of work the district was doing. District maintenance crews were doing spot removal of snow and ice to fight leaks, but snow-load removal didn’t begin until Jan. 11, according to the information the district released. On Jan. 11, two maintenance workers spent eight hours at Pilot Butte Middle School gym using snow blowers to reduce the snow load.
In an email from the district to families Jan. 20, superintendent Shay Mikalson called the roof cave-in a “frightening, close call,” adding he “wondered what we could have done to prevent Kenwood’s gym rooftop from collapsing.”
That email was fuzzy about snow removal details, saying “Specifically, during the storm — and before the Kenwood gym collapsed — our crews were on roofs clearing ice dams, removing snow, and clearing drains” at 13 of the district’s more than 30 schools.
Friday, Mikalson said the information and timeline the district released Thursday is an effort for Bend-La Pine to be as transparent as possible. What the district can do now is look at what it did this winter to make changes for the future to limit the chance of something like a roof collapse happening again, Mikalson said.
His goal in sending out messages and “FAQs” after the roof collapse was to keep the community updated, he said.
The district had no intention of misleading the community on what kind of snow removal was taking place, Mikalson said.
“I still believe everything around that was accurate,” Mikalson said. “I think we’ve gone above and beyond trying to get out all the information we can.”
Also on Friday, Repman said it was never her intention to mislead the community on the kind of snow removal that was going on. She pointed out that the six-man crew was moving snow and ice from roofs for weeks ahead of the collapse, but that it wasn’t “full-on” snow removal.
“We didn’t have the roof-load concern until that last storm,” Repman said, adding the district’s practice changed once it consulted the structural engineer. The consultant, whom the district contacted Jan. 9, responded Jan. 10 with a recommendation to start removing snow depths that were more than 1½ to 2 feet of snow. The district began working on snow loads the following day, Jan. 11.
Change in approach
“The way we were looking at snow removal shifted, from spot removal to removal for load,” Repman said.
This winter was the first time the school district had ever cleared snow from rooftops in the Bend area, at least in its institutional memory, according to the district. In the historic 1992-93 snowstorms, the only Bend-La Pine school that had snow removed from its roof was La Pine High School, according to the district.
The snow removal cost the district $1.61 million, according to Repman. That cost is part of a relief request Deschutes County has filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Following the gym roof collapse Jan. 12 and resulting school closures, Bend-La Pine did a “rolling open” of schools, reopening them as snow was cleared from their roofs. Most Bend-La Pine schools were closed for six days; four were closed for seven days, and four were closed for eight. The closures included a three-day weekend around Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Roof collapses before the gym
In what has been a record-breaking winter, snow loads on roofs became a concern across Central Oregon. Heavy snow caved in the roof of a storage facility in northeast Bend on Dec. 15.
Jan. 5, The Bulletin published an article on the dangers of too much snow piling on roofs, including potential collapses and also flooding caused by ice dams. A Bend community development department staffer said there is wiggle room in snow-load code standards, but that too much snow can in fact cause a roof to fail. If there were 3 feet on his roof, he would clear it, he said.
Jan. 11, the Fed-Ex building in Bend was evacuated when its roof began to buckle under the snow, and a former mill building in the Old Mill District completely collapsed.
On its snow removal and school closure timeline, the district said it estimated “24-30 inches of snow had accumulated on the (Highland gym) roof, potentially more where snow had drifted.”
An “FAQ” section on the district’s website last updated Jan. 18 includes the question “Why wasn’t snow removed from roofs earlier?”
The district states its crews were clearing roofs of snow “based on priority of leaks and other structural issues/concerns as the storm was wearing on.” It does not list when the district began load-related snow removal.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org