ENTERPRISE, Ala. – In the science wing at Enterprise High School, Marisa Younanian huddled for hours with her classmates in the protection of an interior hallway as tornado sirens wailed throughout town. They joked and thought about how hungry they were.
The 17-year-old was the first to see the tornado coming. A flying tree struck a house and ripped its roof off. There was no funnel, just darkness and objects swirled as a howling noise grew in pitch. Her ears popped as the pressure changed in the hallway.
After no more than 30 seconds of chaos, the floor was covered by debris. Lights hung down by their wires from the ceiling. Water cascaded down from a hole.
A few minutes later, the students from the science wing emerged, in shock but alive.
"We were lucky," Younanian said. "The third hall couldn't see it."
Five boys and three girls were killed in third hall, another part of the school of 1,200. They were among 20 people killed in Alabama, Georgia and Missouri by Thursday's tornadoes, created by a huge storm system that buried parts of the Upper Midwest under deep snow and pounded the Gulf Coast with thunderstorms.
President Bush visited the area Saturday and designated Coffee County, in Alabama's southeastern corner, as a disaster area, releasing millions of dollars in federal aid for recovery and individual assistance.
"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," Bush told Enterprise Mayor Kenneth Boswell after a helicopter flight over the area.
Bush also visited Americus, Ga., about 120 miles south of Atlanta, where storms killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes and businesses.
Of nine people confirmed dead in Georgia, six lived in mobile homes in rural Baker County, southwest of Albany. They were obliterated as a twister mowed through houses, cars and pine trees in a seven-mile path.
All that remained of Marvin Hurst's brick home was broken chunks of concrete from the foundation. He was at home in bed when a chunk of a neighbor's semitrailer crashed through the wall and onto the foot of the bed. The walls exploded outward and the roof was torn off.
Yet somehow, Hurst, his wife and son escaped with just a few scratches and bruises.
"I'm not worried about the house," Hurst said. "We've got our health, we're alive and the rest of it doesn't matter."
In Enterprise, residents weren't sure what kind of federal assistance to expect, recalling the federal government's fitful response to Hurricane Katrina. Neighbors with chain saws cut fallen trees for friends. Church groups and other volunteer agencies had swarmed into town to help clear debris and offer hope amid the devastation.
The Weaver family picked through the remains of their house. They hid in a closet with a blanket over them as the twister ripped the roof off their brick home.
"As far as I know insurance takes care of it all, and we are so fortunate to have friends who are helping," Amy Weaver said as she watched her two children. "I know other people need help, though. I hope they get it."
Courtney Loose on Saturday awaited surgery at Medical Center Enterprise for deep lacerations on her head and one leg.
She was among the lucky ones in third hall. When the tornado struck, the wind was so strong it pushed them down the hallway. She said her teacher jumped on top of her and another student, shielding them with her body.
After a few minutes, all was still. "There was blood all over me," Loose said. She thinks she was hit by a brick.
She was trapped under two pieces of metal, which two boys moved to free her. The gash on her leg — "You can see the bone," she said — ran from her ankle to the bottom of her knee. Students right next to her were buried under concrete.
"I thought I was going to die because there was so much blood," Loose said. "I just wanted to get out and call my parents."