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Roofs still buckling under snow; schools in 3 districts stay shut

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By Peter Schworm and Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / February 8, 2011

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GEORGETOWN — It’s been almost a week since the last winter storm, but the heavy blankets of snow that remain are still wreaking damage.

As homeowners and work crews scrambled to clear snow atop buildings across the state yesterday, more than a dozen roofs collapsed, bringing the total number of buildings damaged by snow in the past week to 149, state emergency officials said.

Schools in three districts where snow had caused problems remained closed, as crews worked to get weight off roofs and inspectors assessed buildings.

“There’s just a tremendous amount of pressure up there,’’ said Jack Howland, a maintenance worker at Georgetown’s Perley Elementary School, where crews used shovels and a crane to clear snow from a roof that suffered a partial collapse last week.

In Bellingham, the metal roof of a commercial building gave way, rendering it a complete loss. In Littleton, a collapsed awning trapped an elderly woman inside her mobile home, and in Norwood a roof collapse on a two-story building briefly pinned a firefighter before he was rescued.

“It just came in on me,’’ George Geary, 57, of Norwood said from the scene. “It just happened so fast, and the room was full of snow and metal. I just couldn’t believe that everything fell and I was stuck in the corner.’’

Workers were using snowblowers trying to clear the roof of a large Route 1 office building, but appeared to have inadvertently caused the collapse by piling it in one area. After part of the roof gave way, the building was evacuated without incident. When firefighters arrived, a second, larger section of the roof, about 100 feet by 100 feet, gave way, as well.

For legions of winter-weary residents, yesterday’s thaw felt almost like spring, a merciful respite from a long winter grind. Buried pavement resurfaced, and thick icicles dripped away. Even deep potholes seemed tolerable by comparison.

But the milder conditions proved menacing, saturating roofs and threatening their structural integrity. The roof of a storefront church in Mattapan partially collapsed. The Dedham Mall evacuated and closed stores for several hours amid fears of water damage in a Sears department store. Inspectors ultimately found no serious problems.

With snow in today’s forecast for much of Eastern Massachusetts, officials urged business owners to remove heavy snow piles.

“With some of these structures, we just don’t know how much more they can take,’’ said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. Schools, he said, are especially vulnerable because they typically have flat roofs.

“For the most part, they are big old rectangles,’’ Judge said.

Forecasters said snow would probably be light, with Boston receiving less than an inch.

Judge said only flat roofs have collapsed, and that no residential homes have given way. Remarkably, there have been no serious injuries, although some people have escaped with just seconds to spare.

State officials are working with the federal government in hope of securing low-interest loans for affected businesses and homeowners, whose garages and other secondary structures may have been damaged, Judge said.

Six school districts have reported snow damage or taken steps to prevent it, with Georgetown the only district to report significant damage.

In Hingham, the middle school reopened yesterday after being inspected for possible structural damage, and a Southborough middle school was evaluated after trusses showed some bowing. Students in Chelsea were evacuated from the top floor of a school, but returned after the roof was shown to be stable. In Methuen and in Hamilton-Wenham schools, authorities closed buildings while crews cleared snow from roofs.

Schools were responsible for a sliver of the damages reported to MEMA by police and local fire departments.

Emily Mahlman, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts School Building Authority, said her agency has not received any emergency requests for financial assistance with repair. The quasi-independent government agency aids schools with capital improvements.

In Georgetown, the sounds of a crane mixed with the plinking of melting ice and snow as crews worked to remove snow from the roof of the Perley school.

Howland, the maintenance worker, said the school learned of the roof collapse Thursday, when a call came from a neighboring preschool reporting a large hole in the school, which houses preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade students.

The school suffered no internal damage because the section of roof that collapsed fell onto a concrete structure underneath, a vestige of the building’s initial construction. No one was hurt. School officials say the Perley school could be closed for weeks or even months while the roof is repaired, and they are scrambling to find space for students forced from classrooms.

Meanwhile, in Littleton, Fire Chief Steve Carter said crews used rescue equipment to jack up the awning and pull a woman out of her home around 8 yesterday morning. The town building inspector checked other homes in the area, but everything appeared in good shape because residents had cleared off roofs over the weekend.

State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said the spate of collapses were putting a heavy strain on emergency responders.

“Fire departments across the state have responded to numerous calls for partially collapsed or unstable buildings, and it is taxing local resources,’’ he said.

John Guilfoil of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jenna Duncan contributed to this report. Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.