08 Apr 2021

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Guest Post: The Peabody Flood of 2020

The post below was written by DCPS parent and long-time Hill resident Valerie Jablow. The account below is an excerpt; to read the whole investigation, please visit Valerie’s blog, educationDC. As of today, Valerie has contacted the Historic Preservation Review Board, as well as the Council of the District of Columbia and other leaders on this issue. The fact that Peabody’s partial collapse has not been shared widely by DCPS and has been largely unaddressed by DGS is shocking. At a time where parents need to know that school buildings are well equipped to handle students safely, the collapse at Peabody speaks of a system that grossly neglects buildings everywhere. –Maria Helena Carey

A nearly-full trash container in the playground at Peabody Early Education Campus. Photo by Valerie Jablow

On the evening of September 28 (and/or possibly the early morning hours of September 29, 2020), the ceiling above the third floor atrium at DCPS’s Peabody early childhood campus collapsed. As it fell, the ceiling somehow interacted with a water line, causing water to flood the entire building from the third floor down to its basement. No one was hurt. A passerby noticed water pouring from the building some time later, notifying authorities.

Peabody is, at this moment, still unoccupied—and is currently undergoing demolition preparatory to restoring it to its prior state. The expected completion date of that work is sometime this summer.

Despite a catastrophic building failure that could have killed someone and that has rendered the building completely unusable for most of a year, that information above is all that I can report about this event with any degree of certainty, using information obtained by FOIA, in emails, and noted in public meetings.

Immediately after the ceiling collapse (see pictures here), an engineering firm was hired to report on it by DGS, the city agency in charge of DCPS buildings. In its report from October 1, along with a subsequent engineering report from October 29, the engineering firm attributed the ceiling collapse to hangers installed in the 1960s, when the ceiling was put in during a renovation. The hangers were, according to the reports, inappropriately sized.

That news was a bit slower to get to staff and families, as shown by emails produced via a parent’s FOIA request (which was for all emails and correspondence on the flood and damage assessments from September 28 through December 1).

On September 29, for instance, the school’s principal acknowledged to families that the building had experienced flooding and water damage.

On October 5, in anticipation of DCPS’s expected re-opening in November, the principal shared with families that there was “lack of information to date” about the building.

A few days later, on October 9, the principal gave families a basic outline of what had happened:

“The Department of General Services (DGS) has completed its immediate review of the incident and determined that a portion of the third-floor ceiling collapsed, compromising a water pipe that led to flooding on the 3rd floor and parts of the floors below. This initial report also concluded that although finishes sustained damage, it is unlikely that the flooding caused any deterioration of the main structural elements of the building.”

The principal noted that the building could not be used for DCPS’s anticipated reopening, slated for November 9. Instead, students would be in person at Watkins, the associated elementary campus for Peabody (both are part of the Capitol Hill Cluster School, with Peabody having preK and kindergarten and Watkins having 1st through 5th grades).

To be sure, this all is a bit personal for me: Years ago, both my kids spent plenty of time on the 3rd floor of Peabody in preK and kindergarten. Heck, I spent plenty of time on the 3rd floor—and, more specifically, under the atrium ceiling that collapsed, where school events and celebrations were regularly held.

In fall 2020, as a neighbor rather than a parent at the school, I knew little enough of what had happened at Peabody except that something had occurred that had rendered it unusable.

Starting in mid-October, however, I noticed that the windows of the 2nd and 3rd floors of Peabody were open 24/7, rain or shine. Then, on October 21, walking past Peabody, I noticed workers appearing to shovel debris from the floor of the cafeteria, in the school’s basement. A large metal rectangular trash container in the parking lot was filled with what looked like drywall, which was being taken out of the cafeteria via its door to the outside.

More striking than any of that was the smell: mold. As I stood on the sidewalk, about 30 feet from that open door, the smell of mold was so strong that my eyes began to water.

Not long after, on November 2, a building inspector from Young & Associates (contracted by Zurich, the insurance company) visited Peabody to “investigate a claim of water damage.” In a report dated November 3, the company noted that the ceiling collapsed because of inadequate support and that the collapse broke a sprinkler line, causing a flood—as “indicated by the Insured’s onsite representative” (presumably DGS).

Interestingly, none of the reports produced via FOIA—the two engineers’ reports from October as well as the Young report from November–noted much (or anything) about the 2013 renovation of Peabody.

That so-called “phase 1” renovation upgraded the school’s electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems as well as addressed cosmetic finishes. Recall that the idea behind phase 1 renovations was that more fulsome work would happen at some (unspecified) time in the future. (All DCPS schools are fully renovated in only one ward–Ward 3). Those reports obtained via FOIA also mentioned nothing about existing leakage in the building, and specifically the 3rd floor, prior to the ceiling collapse.

In the wake of Peabody’s most recent renovation work, however, there were reports of leaking in the building. To be fair, this was not entirely new. For instance, I knew of a leak in 2006 in one of the 3rd floor classrooms. That leak, attributed to poor roof drainage, caused plaster to fall. Four years later, in 2010, a similar problem occurred in the same classroom, with similar outcomes. The roof was apparently not replaced in the renovation.

………..

While city officials at the February meeting (for which no notes have been posted as of the time of this blog post) referenced the insurance company wrapping up its own investigation sometime in mid-March, they did not say whether the results would be made public nor anything about subrogation claims against the 2013 renovation contractor.

And none of this is even getting into the reports commissioned on hazardous materials, which determined while the school apparently is free of asbestos, it has plenty of lead paint.

So, cue the cheesily scary organ music—because here’s our mystery!

Was any part of the Peabody sprinkler system affected in/by the 2013 renovation?

Why does neither engineering report nor the Young report make any mention of water except as a by the way?

Who ruled out that prior damage to the 1966 ceiling had nothing to do with the ceiling collapse—and how did they make that determination?

What records are there of water leaks for Peabody’s 3rd floor?

Why is there nothing about the integrity of the fire suppression system in any of these reports, even though a report about it was produced in response to a FOIA request on the Peabody event?

Why is there nothing from the insurance company Zurich in the documents obtained via FOIA?

How have efforts to inspect the school and renovate it since 1966 missed the structural integrity of the supports for the 3rd floor atrium ceiling?

Has Peabody been stabilized? If so, when?

Are there any answers to these questions: “did the ceiling fall as a result of water build up” and “why didn’t the sprinklers automatically notify the fire department”?

Is the 8/18/20 report on the condition of the school’s safety system produced via FOIA the last report on it before the ceiling collapse?

What accounted for a 2-month delay–until November 30–in getting out a work order on restoring Peabody, given that DGS in another (undated) document of the FOIA production (p. 67) says “time is of the essence”?

Why are there possible subrogation claims for Keystone mentioned in the FOIA production—but nothing about its work in 2013?

What work did Keystone do then that is now the possible target of such claims?

(To read the whole article, please visit Valerie’s blog educationDC)

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