Oklahoma Tornado Tragedy Leads to Pilot Project

Before May 20, 2013 many people never gave a second thought to how safe their child's school was during severe weather. Some people, like Mikki Davis, always heard her children would be safer in school. "That's just what everybody's always assumed and I'm sorry I don't believe that."

Her opinion changed that fateful day. She was one of dozens of parents who ran to Plaza Towers Elementary School and saw the collapsed building. "I prayed all the way there. Lord please keep my kids safe," Davis said remembering that day. Half of her prayer was answered when she was reunited with her daughter, but her son would not walk out of the rubble.

My whole life has changed; everything has changed just upside down," Davis told Fox 25. Her son Kyle was one of the seven children who died when the tornado hit plaza towers.

Related: Photos from the Plaza Towers Elementary memorial

"I feel like I'm trying to smile on the outside when my inside is terrible tore up and broken it hasn't pieced itself back together."

Davis knows her son took the proper tornado precautions and he was in a place where he was supposed to be safe. The school just was not strong enough to withstand the tornado. Now Davis, along with other parents and volunteers are joining the effort to put safe rooms and shelters in all of the schools in Oklahoma.

"Every kid, every family should be safe and this should never be able to happen again," Davis said. She is supporting the Shelter Oklahoma Schools project, which is collecting private donations to fund the projected costs of providing storm shelters for the thousands of school children across the state.

The topic of safe rooms in schools took a political tone as politicians disagreed over how best to react following the May tornadoes. Governor Mary Fallin has said she will not support a mandate for schools to install safe rooms, but believes the issue needs to be studied. Other political leaders rallied for a bond measure to borrow money for school safe rooms. That plan failed, which leaves many wondering what will ultimately happen.

"My son is gone. There is nothing I can do to bring him back, but if we all pull together and make this thing so big," Davis said, "Others may be saved in the future because we pulled together and did something about it."

"I would like to say, 'yeah we started something that saved a bunch of kids lives down the road,'" said Ron Wanhanen an engineer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Wanhanen's job involves performing forensic analysis on buildings following a tornado. He studies why some buildings fell and why others survived.

In the case of Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary schools, the first point of failure was the roof. When the roof peeled away, the wind and debris caused the walls to collapse. Wanhanen studied those catastrophic failures and says FEMA is now working on a pilot project for Oklahoma schools.

The idea is to retrofit schools to create storm shelters in hallways by building up walls and connecting them with a new independent roof that's attached to the walls. "If we can get something going here and we can prove that it is economically feasible and it definitely will work this is something that can spread across the nation," Wanhanen told Fox 25.

The program is still in its infancy, but Wanhanen hopes the tragedy at Plaza Towers will help spur the program's development so other children do not die in schools.

Beyond just retrofitting schools to make safe rooms, other districts are opting to turn their entire school into a safe room. In Part 2 of our investigation into making Oklahoma Schools Safer we're going inside the disaster-proof schools.