ENTERPRISE, Ala. — On a mournful mission, President Bush climbed over piles of concrete, roofing, insulation, broken glass and textbooks Saturday that littered Enterprise High School, battered by a tornado that killed eight students.
Down hallway three, lined by blue lockers, he went in private, the corridor where the students died and scores more were trapped in Thursday’s storm. The president also saw the wing — now just rubble — where students had hunkered down as the tornado approached.
“Today I have walked through devastation that is hard to describe,” he said, standing with students, one of whom had a tear running down her face. “Our thoughts go out to the students who perished. Thank God for hundreds who lived,” he said.
“These are very tough times for the people here,” Bush said. “Out of this rubble will emerge a better tomorrow.”
Before visiting the school, he got a bird’s-eye view of the tornado damage in this town of 22,000 in Alabama’s southeastern corner as his Marine One helicopter followed the storm’s extensive path.
“You can never heal a heart, but you can provide comfort knowing that the federal government will provide help for those whose houses were destroyed or automobiles were destroyed,” the president told Mayor Kenneth Boswell after the aerial tour.
‘A heavy heart’
Bush designated Coffee County, in Alabama’s southeastern corner, as a disaster area, releasing millions of dollars in federal aid for recovery and individual assistance.
“This storm is a tough storm. Went eight miles and affected a lot of lives,” Bush said at the Enterprise Municipal Airport. “This country is a prayerful country. A lot of people praying for you.”
Journeying to the South “with a heavy heart,” the president told the mayor and other local officials, “I will try to the best of my ability to help those who lost life and property.”
From the air, Bush got a panoramic look at the devastation across this town. More than 30 tornadoes killed at least 20 people across the Midwest and Southeast on Thursday.
The town’s white water tower — with the words “Enterprise, City of Progress” — stood tall. But nearby, Enterprise High School looked like a wrecked ball had struck it.
‘That’s the new FEMA’
At the school, Bush climbed over mounds of roofing, insulation, broken glass and textbooks that littered the ground and saw where students sought shelter as the storm approached. School officials had ordered students into interior halls — supposedly the safest part of the building.
Bush scheduled the trip to highlight his administration’s stepped-up efforts, through the Federal Emergency Agency in particular, to help victims.
“That’s the new FEMA,” the agency’s director, R. David Paulison, told reporters aboard Air Force One during the flight from Washington.
The White House and the disaster relief agency came under severe criticism for the government’s sluggish response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes that tore through Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005.
“With the system we used in the past, we were waiting for a local community to become overwhelmed before the state steps in and waiting for the state to become overwhelmed before the federal government steps in,” Paulson said. “That doesn’t work. We have to go in as partners.”
Paulison said he was on the telephone with state emergency officials hours after the storms hit. Agency teams have nearly completed preliminary damage assessments in Alabama and planned to begin similar work in Georgia on Saturday, he said.
‘The main priority’
Paulison said FEMA had moved in truckloads of water, ice, tarps, plastic sheeting and communications equipment to help the states take care of residents.
It was not immediately clear what areas besides Coffee County will be eligible for federal disaster aid.
Paulson said he wanted to see the damage firsthand so he could make a quick recommendation to Bush on requests for assistance from Washington.
“That’s the main priority,” he said. “Is the damage significant enough that it overwhelms the local and state capabilities to handle it without federal assistance?”
Officials at the high school had planned to dismiss the 1,200 students early on Thursday because of severe weather. After learning of the approaching tornado, they decided to keep students longer. Within minutes, the tornado hit, blowing out the walls and roof of the school. The eight students died in an avalanche of concrete and metal.
Path of destruction
School officials said they did not have time to evacuate earlier because of the approaching storm. Some said the death toll would have been greater if students had been outside or on the road when the storm arrived. Gov. Bob Riley defended administrators’ actions.
More than 50 others were injured in Enterprise, a town of 22,000. Mayor Kenneth Boswell said about 370 homes were damaged or destroyed.
After touring Enterprise, Bush planned to visit Americus, Ga., about 120 miles south of Atlanta, to be briefed on the damage there and meet with some of the town’s 17,000 residents. Storms in Americus killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes and businesses.
A tornado smashed into Sumter Regional Hospital, filling it with glass, dirt and debris and flooding two operating rooms with 2 inches of murky water. No one inside was hurt seriously, but the medical center was deemed unsafe for its 100 patients.
After the storms passed, hospital staff carried patients down stairs, either in wheelchairs or atop mattresses.
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