AP
Bush offers comfort to devastated towns

By DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press Writer Sat Mar 3, 6:59 PM ET

ENTERPRISE, Ala. -

President Bush handed out hugs to residents who survived killer tornadoes that ripped through Alabama and Georgia and offered encouraging words Saturday at Enterprise High School where students grieved the loss of eight classmates.

"Today I have walked through devastation that is hard to describe," Bush said, standing with his arm around a student who had a tear running down her face. "Our thoughts, of course, go out to the students who perished. We thank God for the hundreds who lived."

Bush made the hastily arranged trip to highlight his administration's stepped-up efforts, especially by the

Federal Emergency Management Agency, to provide immediate help to disaster victims. The White House came under withering criticism for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In all, 20 people were killed by 31 tornadoes that struck the Midwest and Southeast on Thursday. From his Marine One helicopter, Bush got a bird's eye view of damaged areas of the two states where trees stood without tops, roofs were pockmarked with holes, a steeple rested on the ground in front of a church and wide swaths of homes and businesses lay in shambles.

The white water tower in Enterprise, a city of 22,000 in the southeastern corner of the state, was still standing. But the nearby high school, scene of the worst loss of life, looked as if it had been smashed by a wrecking ball.

Bush climbed over piles of black roofing, concrete, broken glass and math textbooks that littered the remains of the school for 1,200. He was taken on a private tour of a hallway, lined with blue lockers, where the eight students died and scores of others were trapped when the ceiling and walls collapsed.

`The biggest effect of the storm is the shattered lives," Bush said. "We can rebuild buildings."

Meg King, 18, was in the hallway, about a classroom away from where her classmates died.

"It was like a movie," said King, who was soaking wet from the rain and covered with parts of the ceiling after the tornado swept the campus. "Everybody was confused and it was just really chaotic. And it was hard to walk through and see people who were hurt."

The president also saw a wing of the school — now a pile of rubble — where students had hunkered down as the tornado approached.

"A hundred kids got out of here alive, which is a miracle," the president said in disbelief.

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.

"Tough times in Americus, Ga., sir, thanks for standing strong," Bush told Sheriff Pete Smith and other local officials who briefed him on the damage.

"There's some citizens that we can't let fall through the cracks," Bush said, noting that some residents had no insurance and would need help to rebuild.

"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," he said.

He stopped to talk to surprised residents in a predominantly black neighborhood where two people died. The tornado tore the back of the duplex away, exposing a row of rooms.

Bush walked down the street and talked with Benita Fletcher, who was so excited by the president's visit that she called her boyfriend and handed the cell phone to the president.

"President Bush calling," Bush said with a grin. "Looks like you have a fine girlfriend. ... Good talking with you."

FEMA Director R. David Paulison, who flew to the region with Bush, said the federal government responded quickly to the storms. He said he was on the telephone with state emergency officials hours after the storms hit, and that ice, water, tarps and plastic sheeting had been sent to the region where FEMA teams were doing damage assessments.

"That's the new FEMA," Paulison said.

"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," he said. "That doesn't work. We have to go in as partners."

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On the Net:

FEMA: http://www.fema.gov

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