Remembering A Very Different First Day Of School in 2011

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VESTAL, NY (WSKG) – Ten years ago, Tropical Storm Lee brought record flooding in communities along the Susquehanna River. Thousands of buildings were destroyed, including a school in Binghamton.

“You Need To Go Outside”

In 2011 the first day of school at MacArthur Elementary School started off rainy, but pretty much just like any other, at least at first.

“I had first grade to fifth grade all settled into their classrooms,” said Maria McIver, Principal at MacArthur at the time. “Then at 9:30 I go and meet with the kindergarteners and their parents.”

That is when the problems became apparent.

MacArthur Elementary’s old building after floodwaters began to recede. (Photo courtesy of Lonna Pierce)

“My secretary goes, ‘Maria, Maria, you need to go outside.’ I go, ‘Patty, I can’t go outside, parents are coming in,’ she’s like – and you could tell by the look on her face – she’s like, ‘you need to go outside,'” McIver said. 

So she did.

“I take off my high heels and put on my rain boots,” McIver explained. “There was a manhole, and the water was spurting up. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, oh my gosh, what do I do?'”

Now-retired Librarian Lonna Pierce remembers watching the floodwaters rise from the hill above MacArthur.

“The library windows were right in front,” Pierce said. “You could tell because I always had these beautiful pots of geraniums there. Pink geraniums. And slowly, slowly, [the water] just crept up. And then it went fast.”

Tropical Storm Lee was not the first time MacArthur had flooded. But the flooding in 2006 had not been quite as bad.

“That’s when I knew it was gone. I knew the library was inundated, and I knew the school was too. And it happened in a matter of hours.”

Librarian Lonna Pierce set up a temporary library in a broom closet at the St. Thomas campus. (Photo courtesy of Lonna Pierce)

But more than books and keepsakes, Pierce said some students did not come back right away. Over two thousand homes in Binghamton were damaged by the flood.

“Some of these kids, I don’t know what happened to them in the flood,” Pierce said. “Some people disappeared, you know, they moved or whatever they did. So, it was important for us to get them back and start some kind of school.”

A Four Mile Hallway

Just about a week later, teachers welcomed students to makeshift classrooms split between two former Catholic schools.

Kindergarten, first grade and second grade went to St. Thomas. The older grades went to St. Francis. Much of the staff, like McIver and Pierce, had to split their time between the two campuses.

“I used to say my hallway was 4.63 miles long, because that’s what it was from St. Thomas to St. Francis,” McIver said.

New School For A Changing Climate

When a new building was planned for the same flooded site, architects drafted a plan for a school built on columns, so the river could enter and leave the school grounds without catastrophe. 

The rebuilt school opened in 2016. (Megan Zerez / WSKG)

“The school was designed ten years ago, but it was intended to meet the needs of the next 20, 30 years,” said Calvin Ahn, one of the architects who designed the new school.

Pierce, the librarian, said the building was not the only part of the school to emerge from disaster a bit more resilient.

“I think about this last year, and teachers who had to adapt to zoom classes and make up stuff on the fly with with tech,” she said. “And I think this is what we did during that flood and during the aftermath of the flood. We made it work and kids, well, kids survive and thrive.”