Days of heavy rains have flooded a South Philadelphia high school, forcing students out of their classrooms, causing Philadelphia School District workers to collapse part of the cafeteria ceiling, and ultimately leading to an early dismissal Tuesday.
Water pooled in every floor of the five-story building, Academy at Palumbo, a district magnet high school of about 1,000 students at 11th and Catharine Streets.
No students or staff were hurt; the collapse was controlled, and district staff are on the ground assessing damage and cleaning up, said Lee Whack, a district spokesperson.
"We'll have our folks working there as long as it takes," he said. "There was a drainage issue, exacerbated by the rains."
But staff say that they have been warning the district about the leaking roof and drainage issues for some time, and that large trash cans collecting water have been a fixture on the school's fifth floor, especially during rainstorms.
Officially, Philadelphia had over 7 inches of rain during the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.
"This was waiting to happen, and they knew about it," said one staffer, who asked for anonymity because of fear of reprisal. "They've been putting Band-Aids on the problem — if a part of a ceiling was bubbled, they would scrape it off and repaint it. They never fixed the problem, because we weren't high up enough on the food chain to get addressed."
The problems at Palumbo are emblematic of the district's serious facilities issues. Officials have estimated that it would cost almost $5 billion to address all of its deferred maintenance projects. Lately, issues with lead and asbestos have also been a major concern after an Inquirer and Daily News story highlighted environmental risks inside district schools.
Palumbo was in good shape, according to the district's internal records. The stately brick school, which was constructed in 1930, in 2017 had a "facilities condition index" score of 11 on a scale of 1 to 100, with schools in the worst shape earning higher marks.
"The school is not in bad shape, especially compared to our other schools," said Whack. He said he had not heard of other Philadelphia schools that had complications because of the heavy rains.
The staffer said that water was everywhere when employees arrived Tuesday morning: pooled on the roof, concentrated on the fifth floor but also running down stairwells, with standing water on every floor. A number of classrooms were affected, and hundreds of students were ushered to the auditorium or gym, where they watched movies, did karaoke, or just talked to their friends.
It was not immediately clear whether students and teachers would be back in the building Wednesday, but the staffer said teachers were planning to return to the school.
"We're just hoping that as a result of this, we'll be bumped up the food chain," said the staffer. "We're worried, because this is an old building. What's falling out of the ceiling? What comes next?"
Jerry Jordan, president of the teachers' union, said the Palumbo situation was "completely avoidable."
"The extensive water damage at Palumbo High School is another example of the failure of state and federal elected leaders to significantly invest attention and resources to our nation's aging infrastructure," Jordan said in a statement.
The Palumbo problem comes on the heels of a rocky opening for the School District. High temperatures at the beginning of the year caused five early dismissals amid widespread concerns about conditions inside the district's old buildings in hot weather.