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Bush to Americans: 'Help the folks down here'

Story Highlights

• Bush's visit represents "the new FEMA," director says
• Bush goes to Enterprise, Alabama, where students were killed
• President meets with officials in Americus, Georgia
• Coffee County, Alabama, a federal disaster area, Bush says
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AMERICUS, Georgia (CNN) -- President Bush assured tornado victims Saturday that help is on the way as he toured towns in Alabama and Georgia that were among the hardest hit by Thursday's storms.

Bush called the devastation "hard to describe" as he visited with officials in Americus, Georgia, where the storms had claimed two lives and shut down Sumter Regional Hospital as doctors cared for victims.

Sumter is one of six Georgia counties that Gov. Sonny Perdue has declared in a state of emergency.

Earlier Saturday, Bush was in Enterprise, Alabama -- where nine people, including eight students in a high school, were killed. He told Gov. Bob Riley and Mayor Kenneth Boswell that Coffee County had been declared "a major disaster area." That designation means extra federal dollars for recovery.

"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," the president said. (Watch Bush explain how some "poor citizens" may not qualify for federal aid Video)

Bush also implored Americans to help out any way they can.

"Some people are going to need your help," he said. "I would ask you out of the generosity of your heart to help the folks down here."

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Alabama, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director David Paulison said Bush's visit was indicative of "the new FEMA."

Before Paulison's tenure, the agency drew fierce criticism for its handling of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. Paulison told reporters that in the past FEMA didn't intervene in disaster recovery until the state and local community became overwhelmed.

That system doesn't work, Paulison said. After Thursday's storms, FEMA immediately sent 14 teams armed with food, water, ice, tarps, plastic sheeting and communications equipment.

"We have to go in as partners, so that's what we're going to be doing," Paulison told reporters.

In all, Thursday's storms killed 20 people: 10 in Alabama, nine in Georgia and a 7-year-old girl in Missouri. (Where the storms hit)

Bush attended a morning briefing at the Enterprise Municipal Airport before embarking on a tour of the town's storm damage and later meeting with families.

Bush's visit to Enterprise came on the heels of a tour by Riley, who declared a state of emergency for the area and ordered the National Guard to send troops, medics and roving security patrols to the southern portion of the state. (Watch a tornado scream into Enterprise, Alabama Video)

The president visited Enterprise High School, where eight 16- and 17-year-olds were killed while seeking shelter in the school auditorium.

Thinking the Thursday tornado warnings constituted a standard drill, students were joking around in the auditorium as they waited out the storm. That is, until the school went black and glass from a skylight crashed to the ground. (Watch scenes of a school that's been "cut in half" Video)

'I had a wall on top of me'

"Everyone got really quiet -- we knew it was serious. No more than five seconds later, it was just like a big explosion and everything -- debris started hitting us," said Mitchell Mock, who was injured during the tornado.

Students were huddled in the building's interior, away from all windows, but no place was safe when the school took a direct hit from a tornado shortly after 1 p.m. The school's roof partially collapsed, trapping students in an avalanche of rubble.

"I had a wall fall on top of me, and the roof fell on top of us," student Brent Smith said. (Watch how one teen died saving a fellow student from a falling wall Video)

"There was just hundreds of kids coming down the hallway, and a lot of them were covered with blood," said Kim Lewis, Mitchell's mother.

Dylan Lewis was trapped under rubble after the twister passed. When he emerged, "there were no more people -- it was just cement and air-conditioning parts," he said.

His collarbone was broken, but Dylan and his brothers helped rescue others before going to the emergency room themselves.

Four juniors, two sophomores and two seniors were killed. The Enterprise School Board identified the dead as Michael J. Bowen, 16; Peter James Dunn II, 16; Andrew Joel Jackson, 16; Ryan Andrew Mohler, 17; Kathryn Madora Strunk, 16; Michael D. Tompkins, 17; Jamie Ann Vidensek, 17; and Alice Michelle Wilson, 16. (Audio Slide Show: Destruction at school)

Officials said the storms killed at least two others in Alabama, one of them in Enterprise and one in Wilcox County.

After delivering havoc to south Alabama, the storms moved into Georgia where nine people were killed -- six in Baker County, two in Americus and one in Taylor County -- spokesman Buzz Weiss of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency said.

In Americus, a tornado slammed into the Sumter Regional Hospital, shutting it down as health workers were treating victims coming in from the storm, Weiss said.

The patients, none of whom was killed, were transferred to other hospitals, Weiss said. (Full story)

The twister also destroyed the local headquarters of the Red Cross, its generators and three of its disaster trailers, an official said.


WHERE THE VICTIMS DIED

Alabama
Enterprise - 9
Wilcox County - 1

Georgia
Baker County - 6
Americus - 2
Taylor County - 1

Missouri
Caulfield - 1

AID INFORMATION

Get help:
FEMA: 1-800-621-FEMA
Offer help:
Red Cross: 1-800-RED-CROSS

Freedom Corps: 1-877-USACORPS

QUICK VOTE

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