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School storm protection is spotty in tornado zones

FILE - A Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, an aerial view shows Plaza Towers Elementary School, which was destroyed in Monday's tornado, in Moore, Okla. Unlike several others schools in the Oklahoma City area, Plaza Towers had no “safe room” in which students and teachers could huddle. The deaths of seven students at Plaza Towers highlights the patchwork of protection that exists at schools in tornado-prone parts of the central U.S.  (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

FILE - A Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, an aerial view shows Plaza Towers Elementary School, which was destroyed in Monday's tornado, in Moore, Okla. Unlike several others schools in the Oklahoma City area, Plaza Towers had no “safe room” in which students and teachers could huddle. The deaths of seven students at Plaza Towers highlights the patchwork of protection that exists at schools in tornado-prone parts of the central U.S. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

With its single-story design and cinder-block walls, Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., 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 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 storm 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 yesterday 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 mph.

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 yesterday 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. The reason: the cost, which can range from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million, depending on the size of the room. For some cash-strapped districts, that could equal the annual salary of nearly an entire school’s teaching staff.

Federal Emergency Management Agency grants distributed by states can cover 75 percent of the cost of safe rooms, but local schools still must come up with the rest.

In some places such as Joplin, Mo., districts have built gymnasiums or music rooms that can serve as safe rooms.

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