Juneau elementary school closed indefinitely after damage from flooding

A person stands in a library on a cell phone
Mark Ibias, a lead maintenance tech with the Juneau School District, stands on waterlogged carpet in the Riverbend Elementary School library on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. Two pipes burst in the school and flooded nearly two-thirds of it with water. Ibias says they’ve been scrambling to get it dried out and cleaned up for several days. (Rashah McChesney)

There were so many fans blowing in Riverbend Elementary School on Thursday morning that it sounded like a jet was taking off inside.

Two pipes — one in the commons area where kids eat meals, another in the nurse’s office — burst during a cold snap and flooded most of the school.  

The weekend weather was bad, and no one was in the school when the pipes burst, so they don’t know for how long it was filling with water. On the day Riverbend was supposed to open to students, the school custodian showed up early to shovel snow and found the mess. 

He said custodial staff and maintenance crew shut off the water and the electricity first. About a dozen of them have been rushing to clean and dry the school out ever since.  

“Its been crazy. It’s been crazy, crazy,” said Lead Maintenance Technician Mark Ibias. Asked if he’s slept, he jokes, “What’s that word?”

The inspection team looked at the floors, the furniture — they talked about the wet concrete under the carpet in the library. 

“Mainly the mold,” Ibias said. “I mean, anytime that you have moisture, you’re going to get some kind of bacteria,” he said. 

Riverbend Elementary School Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis flips through a water-logged basket of books that used to sit on the floor of her office. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

At least two-thirds of the building has been impacted. Ibias said some of it was under nearly three inches of water. 

The school district sent out an email after the inspection team left saying that it will take several weeks to repair the school — that much of the flooring, carpet and drywall need to be replaced.

Teachers haven’t been back into Riverbend yet to fully catalog everything that’s been damaged. In the email, the school district said they’ll have to pack up their classrooms and move everything out of the way so that construction crews can come through. 

Elizabeth Pisel-Davis is the principal of Riverbend. She walked through the school on Thursday and said she’s already seen a few things that will definitely need to be replaced. Some drawers in the nurse’s office were filled with water, so they’ll need new supplies. 

“We’ve had a couple of computers that I know got hit. Some iPads that got hit,” she said. 

Other damage may take longer to figure out, like in the library. None of the books are wet. 

Pisel-Davis points out the wet shelves in the Riverbend Elementary School library. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

“But, if you look carefully at the bookshelves,” Pisel-Davis squats down to point at a corner of one. “See how at the bottom they’re starting to break apart?”

Most of the furniture in the school is pressboard, because it’s cheap. 

“But it’s also one big sponge,” Pisel-Davis said. So, anything that was pressboard furniture sitting in water?” 

She thinks insurance will cover a lot of those losses. And she’s hoping they’ll cover the cost of replacing any supplies teachers may have lost too. 

The whole situation is stressful, and it’s piled on top of the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the other things that teachers are going through right now as they return to in-person learning during the largest spike of new cases the town has seen so far. 

When she saw the photos of her school underwater, Pisel-Davis said she cried. 

“Even though it’s just stuff, it’s our school, and it’s things that kids use. Just the amount of work that my teachers have already put in this year — I just knew that this was one step too far for them,” she said.   

Still, even as she was talking about the frustration and sadness, there are some small moments in all of the chaos that make her smile. 

Musical instruments were crowded together, up and away from wet carpet at Riverbend Elementary School. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Walking toward the library, she ducked around a corner into a dark room where a pile of musical instruments was shoved into a corner. When the custodians came in and found all the water, they made sure to come to this room and move all of the instruments up and away from the soaked carpet — including a set of xylophones that inmates at Lemon Creek made for the kids to use at home during the pandemic 

A company in the community showed up with industrial equipment to help vacuum up the water. Pisel-Davis has been hearing a lot from parents too. There’s basically an army of volunteers waiting to be told when and how to help. 

And the kids are reaching out. 

“I have already gotten a couple of texts from parents from kids who were worried about my turtles,” she said. 

Peanut Butter and Jelly, two turtles who live in Riverbend Elementary School Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis’s office, safe and dry in their enclosure. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Pisel-Davis keeps those turtles, Peanut Butter and Jelly, in an open enclosure in her office under a desk. 

“The kids come and read to or hang out with [them] when they need to just have a break,” she said. “And a couple of kids were like ‘what about the turtles, are they ok?’ And my turtles are fine.” 

She said she didn’t even have to ask about them. The custodians texted her right away to say that they were OK.

For now, the school is closed indefinitely, and the district is scrambling to figure out how and where to teach the 270 Riverbend students. 

According to the school district, Riverbend families will be updated on Monday and can also check juneauschools.org for more information.

This story has been updated.

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