The Great Flood of the High School House

This story originally appeared in our May 2023 print edition.
The high school house is stripped down to its studs following the flood damage on Christmas night.
The high school house is stripped down to its studs following the flood damage on Christmas night.
Maisey Brown

The first few days of term two saw students scrambling to find their new class locations, teachers moving into new classrooms, and tall metal fences marking off the area surrounding the old High School House (HSH). 

Late in the evening on Dec. 25, a sprinkler pipe in the HSH burst. Immediately, the fire department rushed out to the freezing scene, where they were met by Erika Gonzalez, Director of Maintenance. Water poured from the building’s windows and doors in a great flood that created ice slicks upon meeting the 18-degree air, making accessing the building a dangerous task. 

The responders’ first task was to get through the freezing water to the valve so that they could turn off the water, stop the damage, and prevent more ice from forming. Unfortunately, a frightening obstacle stood in their way: the responders did not know whether or not the building’s power was still on, so Gonzalez and the others had to reach out to Georgia Power and get them to turn off the power to that area of campus. Gonzales said, “shutting off power to HSH also shut it off to a number of other buildings, and with the temperature dropping, I feared pipes would burst in other buildings. We were very lucky that didn’t happen.”

At that time, Gonzalez called Maintenance Manager Tom Gottlieb, who rushed to the scene. According to Gonzalez, “Once power was out, Tom proved what a hero he is by tackling getting the water off, a task even the firefighters weren’t interested in trying. There [were] 4 [feet] of water in the basement, but Tom found a way to step on floating tables so as to not have to go in too deep. He basically ‘surfed’ his way through the waterfall, on floating tables, to the shutoff valve, despite pieces of ceiling falling all around him.” 

Says Gottlieb, “I scavenged up some boots, a poncho, and a raincoat. I had no choice but to go for it. I entered the side door through Rosa’s class and was immediately greeted with water pouring everywhere, ceilings failing, and 3 feet of water. I knew exactly where I had to go. The tables from her class were floating. Which I didn’t realize until the first one closest to the stairs, which from my body weight sank to the floor, which was unexpected. I was able to float my way to the shut off. After 2 hours of enduring the cold, and water I had the water shut off.” Gottlieb, however, humbly brushes off his actions, saying, “I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a hero.” 

Next, everyone stood by and waited for the sprinkler system to drain and for the water to stop rushing down the levels of the building. What was left was a shell of the old HSH: the entire building had been flooded, destroying not only the furniture but also the walls and floors. Fortunately, the exterior was saved, but the five classrooms and the faculty offices of the HSH were completed destroyed, and the gushing water had already flooded the High School Building basement classrooms. 

The next day, High School Principal Brett Hardin came out to the scene at around noon. He called the teachers and faculty members whose rooms had been destroyed, relaying to them the news of what had occurred. Joy Lewis-Mendez, who had taught in the HSH for 15 years before now relocating to Lab 2 in the High School Building, spoke to the Forum about when she learned of the pipe-burst, saying, “I found out when Brett called me the morning of Dec 26th. I knew it couldn’t be good news! I was relieved it was only about a damaged building and nobody was hurt. It was nerve-wracking to not know how much damage there was or if any of my belonging had survived.” Fortunately, Lewis-Mendez ended up being able to salvage her “irreplaceable” souvenirs that she has collected from her travels. She has, however, had to mourn the loss of a beloved folder that held every note she ever received from students over the years of her teaching career. 

Dec. 28, Head of School Paul Bianchi sent an email to high school students and parents, informing them of the pipe burst and damage, and announcing that construction would be taking place on campus during the spring semester. Unfortunately, construction has not yet begun, as the school is still working alongside builders and architects to submit plans to the city for permits. Hardin, however, hopes that the building will be finalized at some point late this summer. 

What is known about the construction is that the layout of the HSH will not change much; there will still be five classrooms, but there might be slightly altered walls or door spaces. According to Hardin, “Our understanding at this point is that all should be covered by insurance, but there may be some stuff down the road we have to do.”

Until then, many teachers will occupy new classrooms or teaching spaces. Lewis-Mendez has taken up temporary residence in the High School Building, whereas Marci Wieland, who also teaches Spanish, has inhabited the Library Conference Room. These teachers have had to deal not only with moving classrooms but also with replacing or mourning the loss of many long-held possessions. Says Lewis-Mendez, “I am teaching in Lab 2. The transition has been a bit hard because I rely on my walls and posters [with] phrases a lot in my room, and I always had a quiet space to work. I have had to become very minimalist, and work in areas that are more noisy and distracting. But the technology and maintenance departments have been so helpful to make sure I have everything I need. It has been as smooth as it can be under the circumstances.”

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