MOORE, Okla. - With its single-story design and cinder-block walls, Plaza Towers Elementary School may have seemed sturdy when it was built a couple of generations ago. But a powerful tornado revealed the building's lack of modern safety standards, destroying the school and killing seven students.
Unlike several other schools in the Oklahoma City area, Plaza Towers had no "safe room" in which students and teachers could seek protection from a twister.
The federal government offers money to schools in some states if they decide to install the reinforced rooms. But doing so can still be a daunting financial decision, requiring up to a $1 million for a single shelter that might never be needed. That dollars-and-cents reality has resulted in a patchwork of protection in tornado-prone areas - sometimes with tragic results.
In response to the tornado that plowed through Moore, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin announced Wednesday the creation of a state fund to accept donations for the construction of safe rooms, which are fortified by deep foundations, thick concrete walls and steel doors designed to withstand winds of 250 m.p.h.
Separately, a member of the state House of Representatives proposed creating a $500 million bond issue to pay for storm shelters at public schools and in private homes across the state.
"From the public, it's been a huge outcry," said State Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat from rural Rush Springs, about 60 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. "We need to do something to require storm shelters in schools, especially in the vulnerable areas where there have been tornado outbreaks."
Oklahoma, which has averaged more than 50 tornadoes per year since record-keeping began in 1950, is in the heart of tornado alley. State officials asserted Wednesday that they had done more than their counterparts in any other state to encourage construction of community safe rooms and home storm shelters.
More than 100 Oklahoma schools have already received federal grant money for safe rooms, said the head of the state's emergency management agency. Yet most schools still lack them.