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Berkeley’s Malcolm X Awash Once More

Friday February 27, 2004

In what has become a school ritual almost as common as an afternoon assembly, students at Berkeley’s Malcolm X Elementary headed for dry ground upstairs after Wednesday’s torrential downpour flooded their classrooms for the second time in two months. 

Teachers at the school said that water started hurdling sandbags stacked outside Malcolm X at approximately 9:30 a.m., covering six kindergarten and first grade classrooms ankle-deep in water. Four multi-use classrooms housing the after-school program were also flooded, as were the school’s gym and auditorium. 

Neighbors of the school located at Ellis Street and Ashby Avenue said Ellis was “a river” with three-foot high tides of water racing downhill towards the school. 

No students or faculty were injured. Students were taken upstairs, while teachers, parents and older students sought to salvage supplies and sweep water from rooms. 

The kindergarten and first graders had only returned to their classrooms three weeks ago after a Dec. 28 storm caused similar damage, and kept students in makeshift accommodations. 

Malcolm X has a history of minor flooding, said Principal Cheryl Chinn, but the school had not seen flooding of such magnitude until this year. She added that she would hesitate to return students to their regular classrooms until the district has identified and fixed the cause of the flood. The auditorium and gym, however, should be serviceable by next week, she said. 

The district spent $100,000 repairing damage from the December flood, but has still not determined its cause. Maintenance Director Rhonda Bacot said a civil engineer was scheduled to visit the school Wednesday, the day of the second deluge. 

Parents and union officials were both furious the district failed to prevent a second inundation. “Heads should roll,” said Berkeley Federation of Teacher’s President Barry Fike, adding that he had e-mailed the district five times requesting detailed information and an investigation report on the December flood, but had received inadequate replies. “This shows an absolute lack of responsibility by the district. The cause [of the flood] should have been the first thing they looked at.” 

Catherine Lazio, a Malcolm X PTA member said she was “frustrated with the district’s response to prevention. Why am I having bake sales when the district is allowing these expensive mistakes to happen twice?” she asked. 

Pending completion of insurance claims, officials were unsure of the ultimate cost of the two floods to the district. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence defended her staff, saying their top priority was to return students and teachers to classrooms. Bacot said the district had done the best it could to prepare the school for Wednesday’s storm. Maintenance staff cleaned storm drains and stacked sandbags, but “there was just more water than the drains could handle,” she said. 

The cause of the two recent South Berkeley floods remains a mystery. Renee Cardinaux, Berkeley director of Public Works, said his crews were investigating Wednesday’s overflow, but that an investigation into the December flood at Malcolm X cleared the city of any responsibility. “The water was building up in the school even before the streets were flooded,” he said. “We may have added to the severity, but I don’t think we caused it.” 

He added that if the pending investigation finds the city culpable for Wednesday’s flood at the school, the city would have to come up with the money to compensate for the damages. 

Teachers credited students with an orderly retreat from their classrooms Wednesday morning. Kindergarten teacher Hazelle Fortich was using the storm as a spring board to teach the water cycle, when water started racing through the door. “I was explaining how rivers flow into oceans when I looked down and said ‘Kindergardeners, we need to get upstairs.’” Five minutes later, she said, the water was ankle-deep.  

The six classes will return to the same multi-purpose rooms they occupied during the last cleanup. Cynthia Allman will teach her kindergarten class in a section of the drama room with a sliding door between her students and the young thespians. “They’re going to be a little discombobulated for a few days, but we’ll reestablish our routines,” she said.