TODAY   |  May 22, 2013

Tornado damage raises questions about school safety

After two schools in Moore, Okla., were destroyed by the tornado that ripped through the town Monday afternoon, killing seven students, school authorities are considering ways to make schools safer from natural disaster. NBC’s Erica Hill reports.

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>>> welcome back to moore, oklahoma. the devastating tornado that struck here on monday is forcing school administrators here and all across the country to now rethink their school's safety plans. nbc's erica hill is about 300 miles up i-44. she's in the town of fair grove , missouri , where a powerful storm years ago did force a major change. erica, good morning to you.

>> reporter: matt, good morning to you. that is exactly what happened. four years ago, an intense wind storm came through this area, severely damaged the school, with 350 students inside. now, they were lucky. there were no deaths, there were no major injuries. but that served as a major wake-up call to the community, which felt they then had to protect their children at any cost. the pictures of plaza towers elementary school almost defy description. it was simply a nightmare.

>> everybody said, put your head down, put your head down.

>> reporter: like many schools in the area, plaza towers doesn't have a basement and there was no tornado saferoom. but those rooms are becoming more common, at hundreds of schools across the country. architect brad erwin designed this saferoom in the gymnasium at fair grovehigh school. it can withstand an ef-5 tornado with winds of 250 miles per hour.

>> the entire closure is specifically designed to keep everybody safe. the walls are made out of pre-cast concrete. they're 14 inches thick.

>> reporter: four years ago, it was fair grove in the path of nature's fury, when a violent windstorm hit the town of 1,400. john link is the superintendent of schools.

>> it didn't take me a whole long time to realize that we had to do something.

>> reporter: using $1.5 million in federal grant money, this safe room is connected to noaa's warning system, which can trigger the ventilation and automatically unlock the doors. the room is reinforced with special materials, some of them tested here. at the national wind institute at texas tech . engineers fired 2 x 4s out of a cannon at 100 miles per hour to test wall strength and used this simulator to recreate the vortex of a tornado, with wind speeds up to 200 miles per hour. across missouri , brad irwin's firm is designing more than 30 safe rooms, including five at schools in joplin, where an ef-5 tornado leveled sections of the town two years ago today, killing 158 people. haunting images no one wants to see repeated.

>> educating our kids is a high priority, but it provides a safe environment, has got to be a higher priority.

>> reporter: fema grants have funded the construction of more than 1,300 safe rooms since 1999 . those grants ranging from $500,000, matt, to as much as $3 million.

>> all right, erica hill in fair grove , missouri . erica, thank you very much.