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Bush visits Ala. school hit by tornado

President pledges US assistance to help victims

President Bush inspected the ruins of Enterprise High School. He told the students to be strong and set an example for others. (JASON REED/REUTERS)

ENTERPRISE, Ala. -- In a mournful South yesterday, President Bush saw the effects of last week's deadly tornadoes and walked through the shattered school where eight students died.

"Out of devastation can come hope and a better tomorrow," Bush said after talking to teenagers grieving for their classmates at Enterprise High School.

He climbed over piles of concrete, roofing, insulation, broken glass, and textbooks. Be strong and set an example for the other 1,200 students, he told four youngsters, all holding hands, as they spoke with him.

Down hallway three, lined by blue lockers, the president saw the spot where the eight students succumbed and scores more were trapped in Thursday's storm. Bush also saw the school wing, now just rubble, where students had hunkered down -- and survived -- 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. "A hundred kids got out of here alive, which is a miracle."

To the extent that it can, Bush said, the federal government will work to rebuild the school and help other victims of the disaster.

During the visit, he designated Coffee County as a disaster area, releasing federal dollars for recovery and individual assistance.

R. David Paulison , the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, came along for a firsthand look at the damage so he could make quick recommendations to the White House on requests for help from Washington.

The trip, quickly arranged Friday, was intended to highlight his administration's stepped-up efforts to help disaster victims. The White House came under withering criticism for its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

More than 30 tornadoes killed at least 20 people across the Midwest and Southeast on Thursday. In this southeastern corner of Alabama, the storm injured 50 people and damaged or destroyed about 370 homes among the 22,000 residents.

Teams from the federal relief agency have nearly completed preliminary damage assessments in Alabama and began similar work in Georgia yesterday, which Paulison said shows the extent of the changes at FEMA. He said the agency started moving in truckloads of supplies and communications equipment immediately, and had teams on the ground just a few hours after the storms hit.

On the second leg of his visit, Bush toured Americus, Ga., about 120 miles south of Atlanta, where storms 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. It was deemed unsafe for its 100 patients.

The president stopped by the home where the two had died; the tornado tore the back of the house away, leaving rooms exposed.

When she saw Bush, Benita Fletcher called her boyfriend and then handed her phone to the president. "President Bush calling," Bush said. "Looks like you have a fine girlfriend."

To Sheriff Pete Smith of Sumter County , Ga., and other local officials, Bush spoke of the need to make sure some storm victims do not fall through the cracks.

"The best help they can get is when a citizen comes and builds them a house," the president said, appealing for volunteers to help in the recovery. "The minute you find out you don't have what you need, if you put out a call to the country, this country will respond."

Before visiting the Alabama school, he got a bird's-eye view of the scene as his Marine One helicopter followed the storm's extensive path. He saw trees without tops, roofs pockmarked by holes, debris everywhere. Next to some wrecked homes were others untouched.

The town's white water tower -- with the words "Enterprise, City of Progress" -- still stood. But nearby, the high school looked like a wrecking ball had struck it.

"We can never replace lives and we can't heal hearts, except through prayer. And I want the students to know and the families to know that there's a lot of people praying for them," Bush said.

The president also made a public appeal for contributions to the American Red Cross and other relief organizations