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Flood response plans underway at Flagstaff Unified School District

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Wednesday will be the start of the school year for kids across Flagstaff, including at Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD). For those attending Sechrist Elementary, flooding might also be a concern.

Flooding from the Pipeline Fire scar has repeatedly closed a section of Highway 180 this summer, including directly across from the elementary school. While the building itself has a protective wall of sandbags, the parking lot and nearby roads have gone underwater multiple times as a result of the floods, most recently on Sunday afternoon.

As of Monday morning, the National Weather Service forecasts an 87% maximum probability of precipitation for the first day of school, with a 71% chance on Thursday and a 67% probability on Friday. The chance of rain continues into early next week.

A representative of the district said FUSD's incident command team has been meeting to discuss its response to the expected rain. Sechrist is expected to send a message to families further outlining its plan either Monday evening or Tuesday morning. 

This is now the second year in a row FUSD has had a school building affected by flooding. After a significant storm on the Museum Fire scar last August, Killip Elementary flooded during the second week of the 2021-2022 school year. A new building was already in the process of being constructed and the school moved to the former Flagstaff Middle School building across town for the rest of the school year. Wednesday will be the first day of classes in the new Killip building.

The agenda for Tuesday's governing board meeting also mentions the district has made plans to respond to monsoon storms.

“As monsoon weather events continue to impact our communities, plans have been made to maintain the safety of individuals at district sites and mitigate disruption to school operations. In the event of a significant flooding event, students and staff may need to shelter-in-place at school sites until safe dismissal or evacuation can occur,” it said.

The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening and will be streamed at vimeo.com/fusd1.

While the City of Flagstaff has been cleaning Highway 180 and adjacent streets after flooding, Sechrist’s building is on FUSD property, so thus far the district has been handling cleanup at the school.

The city's public works director, Scott Overton, said city cleanup efforts in the area usually take two or three days and street sweeping takes about a week. This is dependent on conditions during flooding, however, as the amount of material carried down has been different for every storm so far, he said. 

For example, he said Sunday's storm was "unique."

“It started to go deeper into the neighborhood, so there’s just a lot more impacted streets -- and then late yesterday, it was really really soupy,” he said Monday. “So they were having a hard time even getting it into tractor buckets, it’s just way too much water in it.”

Once the flows stop, groups from public works and water services clear roadways, right of ways and sidewalks using heavy equipment. Debris is loaded into trucks and underground storm drains and culverts are cleaned using a vacuum truck to get them ready for the next storm.

Cleanup efforts will continue over the next few days, as debris and silt is removed and street sweepers take multiple passes to clean the roadways as much as possible.

“Then, we just hit repeat every time it flows through here,” he said.

This was the sixth storm event this summer and the fourth cleanup response in the Pipeline West area, Overton said. Each event has caused a closure on Highway 180, including the section directly in front of Sechrist Elementary. In the last three events, it has taken about an hour to let the water subside and clean up the road, he said.

“Water has generally been clearing pretty quickly and then we take about 30 minutes to get the road cleared off for safe access and travel, but the hard closure, unfortunately, with Sechrist is tough because it’s the only road in and out of there. Until the floodwaters drop, there’s no secondary access.”

For people in the closure areas so far, Overton said the guidance has been to shelter in place until the flooding subsides. He expected a similar approach from the district. Emergency traffic, such as an ambulance, has been able to make it through the road during the closure, but there are too many families at Sechrist to have them come pick up their children while the road is closed. 

Jessica Garard lives in the affected area with her husband and son, who will be starting third grade at Sechrist this week. While the family has been involved in the neighborhood response to the flooding and their neighbor’s houses have been affected, so far the only impact to their own home has been water in the front yard.

The flooding hasn’t really worried her son, she said, though he’s helped to fill and move sandbags and spent some time playing with other kids in the mud Sunday as their families worked to respond to the floods.

“It's not really concerning him too much," she said. "...He’s still just a young kid anxious for school to start."

They live close enough to walk to the school, so Garard said the floods haven't really changed their plans for the school year. 

Garard hadn’t heard from the school Monday afternoon, but said she believed there would be communications on the subject either Monday or Tuesday. She said she wasn’t worried about the building flooding or about the road closures affecting pick-up or drop-off.

“I trust the staff, the teachers and everyone at Sechrist that if my son has to stay there a little bit longer, he’s in good hands while he’s there,” she said.

While her family isn’t personally affected, she did wonder how the ongoing street construction had been impacted by flooding and whether it would affect older kids who needed to take the bus to a school in a different part of town.

“Luckily for all of us that live right there, we can all walk to Sechrist, but middle schoolers and high schoolers are going to be in a different boat," she said.

Overall, she said she’s been impressed by the neighborhood’s efforts in response to the flooding so far.

“I really do appreciate all the community members that are coming together to help everyone in our neighborhood, because obviously this is all unprecedented," she said.

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