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Roof Caves in on Floris

Classrooms spared while principal's office receives brunt of damage caused by two feet of snow.

At 6:59 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, a motion detector in Floris Elementary sent an alarm to the Fairfax County Public Schools main office. About 20 minutes later, security called Floris principal Karen Siple to tell her that, "there was a little problem with the roof."

By the time Siple arrived at Floris, there were five fire trucks and two police cars, lights flashing, scattered about the front parking lot.

"Right then," she said, "I knew this wasn't going to be good."

On Saturday morning, a portion of the roof of Floris Elementary caved in on itself under the weight of nearly two feet of snow and two additional inches of rain. In its wake, the collapse left a mass of tangled wires, soaking wet ceiling tiles and broken drywall strewn about the flooded halls.

Sniper shootings, record snowfalls and now a collapsed roof. All in all, Siple's first year as Floris principal has had a little bit of everything.

“It’s been a hard year for everyone, not just Floris,” Siple said. “If anything, these experiences have taught me that a school is more than just the walls. We will meet this new challenge, head on."

<b>WHILE THE COLLAPSE</b> did not directly affect any classrooms, it did damage roughly 3,000 square feet of the school, including the main office, principal's office, health clinic, "little theater" and portions of one of the computer labs, according to county officials. It also severed the entire school's phone lines, electricity and heat. According to Paul Regnier, spokesman for the Fairfax County Public Schools, initial "ballpark estimates" for the cost will run around $1.5 million.

Floris is the oldest school in the county, but the "administrative pod" which suffered the collapsed roof was actually much younger than the rest of the building. It was constructed in 1974, some 20 years after other parts of the school were opened.

It could have been worse, said Kitty Porterfield, a school spokesperson. "Thankfully, nobody was in the building at the time." By Sunday, school construction officials stabilized the entire structure and are currently working around the clock to complete a report on the damage assessments, said Lewis Rauch, director of design and construction for Fairfax County Public Schools.

As a result of the record snowfall and the Floris incident, county engineers spent last weekend inspecting all 235 of the county's school buildings and centers. The powerful tandem of two winter storms did cause water damage in several other school buildings, according to officials. But other than the roof collapse at Floris, no additional structural damage was found. Ironically because of the heavy snow, inspectors were on the Floris roof on Friday, the day before it collapsed, said Porterfield.

"The sheer weight of 22 inches of snow coupled with an additional two inches of rain created an unbearable pressure on the building," said Thomas Brady, chief operating officer for Fairfax County schools, at a crowded Monday night meeting for Floris parents at Rachel Carson Middle School.

The snow, ice and rain, Brady said, was strong enough to rip six bolts from a steel support beam in the school's roof system. "The rest of the school is structurally sound," he said. "Safety is our main concern, nothing will happen until we have made sure it is safe for all the students, teachers and administrators."

Despite the assurances about the rest of the building, a couple of parents expressed concern about the state of the oldest county school during Monday's public meeting.

Luis Cervantes has three children in county schools, one attends Floris. Cervantes questioned the county's wisdom to only inspect every building once a year. "What if there had been kids under there?" he asked. "Considering all of the snow here, my worry is that the county is not checking these roofs nearly often enough. It's not like we live in Houston or Los Angeles."

As early as Saturday afternoon, investigators believed the remainder of the building was intact and safe. “At this time," said Rauch, "we don’t think there is any further threat to the building.

<b>WHILE OFFICIALS</b> have yet to set a definitive timetable, a few, including Siple and Brady, said they are "hopeful" Floris students would be back in their familiar confines within three to four weeks. While looking to bring students back to Floris as quickly as possible, Brady stressed that safety was the county's number one concern.

"Nothing will happen and nobody will return to Floris until it is made safe for everyone."

Long a fixture along Centreville Road in Herndon, Floris Elementary is the county's oldest public school. It was, according to county officials, scheduled for major renovation beginning in September. On Monday, Brady announced that it did not make sense to rebuild the administrative office, the little theater and the clinic as it existed before the roof caved in on Saturday. Instead, "we will renovate it as the way it will be," he said, to the cheers of the audience. "This will be phase one of the renovation process."

With the timeline moved up, Brady announced that the space where the office once sat will be converted classrooms as called for in the designs.