Bush Visits Ala. School Hit by Twister

The Associated Press
Saturday, March 3, 2007; 11:40 AM

ENTERPRISE, Ala. -- Betty Thomas' house was without power, battered by the tornado that killed eight students at a nearby high school.

But Thomas said she was more concerned about caring for her five grandchildren and neighbors _ who she was barbecuing food for in her front yard Friday _ than about how much the government will chip in to help fix her place up.

"I haven't even had a chance to think about that," said Thomas, 54. "I'm just glad to be here."

President Bush arrived in Enterprise on Saturday, a day after Gov. Bob Riley toured the town's heavily damaged school and ravaged neighborhoods.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were assessing the damage, which Police Chief T.D. Jones said covered a swath about four miles long and hundreds of yards wide.

Catherine Samuel helped a friend remove possessions from a tornado-damaged home Saturday, and said she hoped assistance came quickly for those who were hardest hit.

"People are probably scared of FEMA after (hurricane) Katrina. I hope they don't come here and make it worse," she said. "There are a lot of homeless people in Enterprise right now. They need help."

The tornado struck Enterprise High School on Thursday, killing eight students. They were among 20 people killed in Alabama, Georgia and Missouri by tornadoes contained in a huge storm system that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. The storms damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, toppled trees and knocked down power lines. More than 50 people were injured in Enterprise, a town of 22,000 people.

Elaine Davis and her family moved into a friend's vacant house because a steel beam from the school went through her own home. Insurance could cover that damage, but "the government needs to come in and rebuild the school as soon as possible," she said Saturday.

As residents began the arduous task of cutting and hauling away downed trees on Friday, some questioned why students were still at the high school nearly three hours after the first tornado warnings were issued.

Warning sirens blared at about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, prompting school officials to order the high school's 1,200 students into interior halls _ supposedly the safest part of the building.

Many students left school after the initial warning, and administrators decided to dismiss classes at 1 p.m., before the worst of the weather was forecast to hit, said Bob Phares, an assistant school superintendent.

But with hundreds of students still huddled inside the school, emergency management officials warned that a tornado might hit the area and advised school officials to hold students until 1:30 p.m., Phares said.

When the storm hit at about 1:15 p.m., the wall of one hall collapsed and the concrete slab roof fell on the victims.

School officials said they had no chance to evacuate earlier because of the approaching severe weather. And others said the carnage would have been greater had students been outside or on the road when the storm hit.

The last of the bodies were removed Friday. The dead students were five boys and three girls, all 16 or 17 years old.

© 2007 The Associated Press