MOORE, OK (KTVI)-- Nobody will ever forget the heart-wrenching pictures broadcast across the nation in the hours following the Moore, OK tornado nine months ago; students climbing from the ruble of destroyed school buildings and frantic parents running to the scene searching for their youngsters. The storm claimed the lives of seven 3rd graders at Plaza Towers elementary school, but many more were saved.
Despite the tragedy of that day, experts agree it could have been so much worse. Teachers and school officials credit their focus on tornado drills and preparedness for saving many lives. Teachers and students knew what to do and when to do it.
"There`s no doubt lives were saved that day," said Jennifer Simonds, a kindergarten teacher at Plaza Towers. School district representative Jimi Fleming agrees. "On that day when we got word that we needed to take our tornado precautions, everybody knew what exactly they need to do and they did it immediately. It`s how we were able to survive as well as we did," he said.
What failed the school was the building. It was no match for the EF-5 twister. Now a new Plaza Towers is rising from the ground and it`s a model for any new school being built in Tornado Alley.
"We are going to have FEMA rated storm shelters that are in place. From the inside of the building they will look just like any other classroom," says Fleming.
Building new schools from the ground up is not an option for most school districts. In Henry County, Tennessee, they wanted to build a shelter within an existing school. Last summer they contracted with TLM Associates to encase the school hallways in steel and concrete - turning those hallways into FEMA approved storm shelters.
Jason Pirtle, of TLM Associates says the new shelter fits within what`s already there and the youngsters don`t even know it is there. "This way the teacher can just grab them and pull them right into the shelter and lock the door and they are safe," says Pritle. The new hallway fortress can protect as many as 900 students and staff.
Other shelter options exist as well. Webb City schools in southwest Missouri just last week contracted with ABC Domes to build a new dome shelter that will double as an athletic facility.