ENTERPRISE, Ala. – In a sorrowful South, President Bush saw disheartening devastation Saturday from killer tornadoes and wandered through the shattered school where eight students died.
"Out of devastation can come hope and a better tomorrow," he said after talking to teenagers grieving for their classmates atEnterprise 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 went in private, the corridor where the eight students succumbed and scores more were trapped in Thursday's storm. The president 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."
During the visit, Bush designated Coffee County as a disaster area, releasing federal dollars for recovery and individual assistance. His disaster relief chief 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 put together Friday, was intended to highlight his administration's stepped-up efforts, through the Federal Emergency Agency in particular, 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.
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 volunteer 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.
Student government president Megan Parks, 17, said two of her friends died at school. "It was really hard to hear that they were gone," she said.
A wall in one hall collapsed and the concrete slab roof fell on the victims. She had left about 30 minutes before the tornado hit, picked up her younger brother and was at home.
Meg King, 18, was in the hallway, about one classroom away, where her classmates died. "It was like a movie. The skylight above us busted. You crawled underneath each other and woke up to half of the walls gone," she said. "You were underneath the parts of the ceiling that fell and you were soaking wet from the rain, and everybody was confused and it was just really chaotic and it was hard to walk through and see people who were hurt."
Bush said the student government president knows her senior year will be difficult. "But as a student leader, she will have the opportunity to help rebuild" and learn that hope can follow tragedy.
The president made a public appeal for contributions to the American Red Cross and other relief organizations. "This country is a prayerful country. There are a lot of people praying for you," he said at the Enterprise Municipal Airport.
Journeying to the South "with a heavy heart," Bush told Mayor Kenneth Boswell and other local officials, "I will try to the best of my ability to help those who lost life and property."
To the extent that it can, he said, the federal government will work to rebuild the school.
The head of the Federal Emergency Relief Agency 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.
The quick response was part of what R. David Paulison said was "the new FEMA."
Paulison said FEMA moved in truckloads of water, ice, tarps, plastic sheeting and communications equipment to help states take care of residents.
It was not immediately clear what areas besides Coffee County will be eligible for federal disaster aid. Paulison said that would be determined based on whether the damage was bad enough that local and state resources couldn't respond adequately without federal help.
"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," Paulison said. "That doesn't work. We have to go in as partners."