Deluge Threatens New England Boarding School Bill Matthews, headmaster of St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., talks about how flooding in New England has swamped the campus and threatened to destroy the school's books and manuscripts.
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Deluge Threatens New England Boarding School

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Deluge Threatens New England Boarding School

Deluge Threatens New England Boarding School

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The sun finally broke out across New England yesterday. Good news for resident of the six-state region who've been drenched with days of record-breaking rainfall.

A massive effort is now underway to clean up thousands of flooded basements, yards, roads, even entire towns. The economic impact from the flood damage will be in the tens of millions of dollars, and some schools and businesses remain closed.

On Wednesday, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney asked the federal government for disaster relief.

One of the states hardest hit is New Hampshire. 600 roads across the Granite State were closed during the height of the flooding. 200 National Guard troops we called out to help evacuate stranded residents.

Today, officials are still keeping an eye on dams and bridges along the swollen Merrimack River. But in the state capital, Concord, it's already too late; the Turkey River overflowed its banks, sending tons of gushing water straight through the 2,000-acre campus of St. Paul's School, which, on a personal note, is my alma mater.

Bill Matthews, the headmaster of St. Paul's School, joins us now from his office in Concord.

Hello, Bill.

Mr. BILL MATTHEWS (Headmaster, St. Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: How are you doing?

Mr. MATTHEWS: We're doing fine here. The emergency is over. We are - the life-safety issues have been resolved, and we're now starting the process of rebuilding.

MARTIN: How long have you been at St. Paul's? And I should say to those of us who weren't there, it's basically just the school, no name needed. But how long have you been at the school?

Mr. MATTHEWS: I've actually been at the school, in one way or another, for 44 years; four as a student, and this is my 40th year on the faculty.

MARTIN: Have you ever seen anything like this?

Mr. MATTHEWS: No, I never have. And the school never has, either. It's the worst flooding that this school has ever seen.

MARTIN: Had the school ever had to be evacuated before?

Mr. MATTHEWS: In the hurricane of 1938, I am told by a good friend that that the school did have to evacuated; but not even then were the waters as high as they have been in the last five days.

MARTIN: And I think for those who don't know, the school is completely residential; all 500 students - 500-and-plus students live on-campus, and I think all the faculty, as well?

Mr. MATTHEWS: Yeah. We have all 530 students living here, and 100 faculty members and their families living on the campus, as well. So when this crisis arrived, we had to deal very quickly with student and general life-safety issues. For example, on Monday we had to mobilize in a hurry and get 530 students off campus. And we were able to do that from when we announced at 8:00AM that we were doing this, to the end of the afternoon we had everyone off campus, with the exception of 13 international students.

MARTIN: How were you able to do that?

Mr. MATTHEWS: Largely because of the terrific efforts of our Dean of Students office and the entire faculty. The logistics of getting students to train stations and helping with plane reservations was enormous, but everyone pitched in and did their bit. And, fortunately, we were able to get them all out.

The situation here on campus was pretty dramatic for a couple of days. At that time, on Monday, when we actually made the decision to evacuate the students at 6:00AM that morning - when we made that decision, the campus had been cut in half by the waters. There was a torrential - the river was - had overflown and there was a huge torrent of water that was rushing through the center of our campus; and it was really a very dangerous situation. By 24 hours, we had confined everybody to their dormitories; and we'd evacuated the dormitories that were in the lower lying areas and doubled-up in dormitories that were in higher areas.

But here were a number of factors other than the water flowing through the middle of our campus that forced us to evacuate the students.

MARTIN: Let me just pause briefly to say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Bill, at its worst, how high was the water? I mean, could you walk across campus?

Mr. MATTHEWS: No, you couldn't. There were - we had cars submerged actually in parts of the campus. One part was cut off from the other part, and what further - what made further difficulties for us was the fact that one of the halves, for a period of time, was not accessible for emergency vehicles.

What really drove our decision, late Sunday night, was that that half of the campus was not accessible.

The school pumping station had gone down; the transformer that provided power and electricity had gone down; the fire alarm system were out in our dormitories, and it was a fairly easy decision that we had some life-safety issues here and we had to get people out as quickly as we could.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the infrastructure, too, but I do want to talk about the kids for just a moment. They're only a couple of weeks - the seniors are just a couple of weeks away from graduation. It seems like that would be a very emotional thing for a lot of them to consider that they might not be able to have the graduation experience that many of them were hoping for. I mean, what were the emotions like on campus, as you were trying to get people out?

Mr. MATTHEWS: It was a very emotional day on Monday, and not only the seniors but the rest of the 9th, 10th, and 11th graders were very emotional and were saying goodbye very abruptly and very quickly. Usually, obviously, seniors have the remainder of the spring term to do that.

We are going to be making, and will be making, every effort to have the seniors come back for graduation. We've decided that we will hold graduation. Parts of the campus will, obviously, be sealed off for safety reasons. But we will be having graduation and we will be having, actually, our - what we call our reunion anniversary, graduation weekend, the first weekend in June.

MARTIN: Well, it's also not just the students' nerves have been rattled, and, of course, the faculty trying to care - and the administrators trying to care for them, you also have some very valuable manuscripts and other - and building on campus that, I think, are also in danger. What kinds of steps did you take to preserve some of those valuable items?

Mr. MATTHEWS: That really is one of the great stories, actually, of this whole crisis here. Over the course of one day, Barabara Tu(ph), our librarian, mobilized a SWAT team of faculty, staff, and students, and they carried 25,000 volumes, actually, from the bottom floor of our library up to higher ground in higher floors. And the most valuable parts of what they brought up were the school's archival records, the handwritten correspondence of former directors and teachers; really the school's history.

MARTIN: Bill, I'm so sorry, we're going to have to interrupt. And I just wanted to say that - thank you so much for speaking with us. And I think it's also important to say, this was the 150th anniversary of St. Paul's School. We hope to talk to you again.

Bill Matthews is the headmaster of St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. He spoke to us from his office there.

You can see how floodwaters overran St. Paul's campus at the TALK OF THE NATION page at

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, in Washington.

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