As roofs give way to snow, concerns for homeowner safety grow

After two recent snowstorms closed the federal government and schools across the region, people began digging out. The season's snow tally in D.C. reached 55.6 inches Wednesday -- more than the last record of 54.4 inches, set in 1898-99.
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fire officials are warning homeowners not to climb on rooftops to clear the snow that began accumulating last weekend.

"We think that would be a design for disaster," D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin told reporters. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) urged residents to "stay with relatives" if they are worried their roofs are in danger of collapsing.

The warnings came as another storm pushed in and an increasing number of area jurisdictions reported various types of roofs buckling, bending and collapsing.

On Tuesday, the roof of a 100-foot-long garage in Upper Marlboro collapsed, injuring a man who was on a ladder trying to clear it of snow. Hours later, a roof collapsed on three stores in a small strip mall in the Largo area of Prince George's County. No injuries were reported.

Over the weekend, the roof of an airplane hangar at Dulles International Airport caved in, damaging a couple of planes but causing no injuries. Monday morning, the roof in the bay area of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue station at Baileys Crossroads gave way, damaging a fire engine and a firetruck. Another station in Annandale was evacuated after firefighters spotted the roof sagging. Staff and equipment were moved to a bingo hall.

Although no residential buildings were reported to have collapsed, many residents -- especially those in older rowhouses in the District -- expressed concern about the stability of roofs that are flat or inclined slightly.

Harry Kalashian, who has been a roofing contractor for 32 years, said he has offered homeowners a wide range of advice about the snow piles, but his tips do not include stepping out on the roof.

"It's not worth dying over," he said. What homeowners could do, he said, is take a trip to the attic with a flashlight.

"If you see fresh cracks, if you have a substantial amount of water coming in, if you hear cracks, they probably have a concern," said Kalashian, who owns Harry and Sons Roofing of Brentwood.

If there's a leak, he said, take a knife or screwdriver and dig a hole to drain the water. Otherwise, he said, "Just sit back. This is why you have insurance. This will all be over in a week."

Kevin Morgan, operations manager at Wagner Roofing of Hyattsville, said his company will clear snow from roofs for $195 an hour. "You're probably looking at three hours of work," he said.

Typically, flat roofs on commercial and warehouse buildings are the most susceptible to collapsing, Morgan said, although his company also has dealt with porch roofs that have fallen.

The residential properties most endangered are those with existing, acute problems: leaks and cracked beams and walls.

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the homes are going to be okay," said Joe "Skip" Walker, who owns a building inspection company. According to several structural engineers, the District's building code requires that rooftops be able to handle 30 pounds per square foot, up from the 10 or 20 pounds required before World War II, when many of the city's rowhouses were built.

"While it's hard to generalize, this is not the first time these buildings have seen snow, and they've made it," said David Oleynik, principal at Spiegel, Zamecnik and Shah, a structural engineering firm in the District.

If that is not comforting, Allyn E. Kilsheimer, 68, a structural engineer who helped rebuild the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, said: "If you're really worried about it, go to a hotel, go to a friend's house."

But, he added, "in the 52 years I've been doing this, I've never gone to a rowhouse that's collapsed under snow. If everything's in good shape, you don't have to be worried."

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