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Alabama Students Question Reaction to Storm


President Bush is in Alabama today visiting areas struck by a rash of deadly tornadoes earlier this week. Mr. Bush designated Coffee County a disaster area, releasing millions of dollars in federal aid. From Missouri to Alabama, the storm system took at least 20 lives.

NPR's Audie Cornish is in Enterprise, Alabama, where eight students were killed at a local high school.


AUDIE CORNISH: Eighteen-year-old Jeremy Boykin(ph) rode out the tornado in a school hallway, and he still can't believe what he's seeing. The senior basketball player has come back to the battered and mangled campus of Enterprise High School with a camera.

Mr. JEREMY BOYKIN (Enterprise High School Student): Just looking at it on TV over and over again, the place that we usually come to every single day, kind of getting irritated. So if you want to come see it yourself with your own eyes...

CORNISH: Boykin says he's heard rumors that school officials knew of tornado warnings as early as 9:30 a.m., and if that's true, he says, students should have been out of there by 10:30. Instead, students heard nothing from officials until there was announcement on the intercom that class would be dismissed at 1:00.

Mr. BOYKIN: When 1:00 o'clock hit there was a lot of commotion in the hall because everybody was saying, why in the world are we still in the school? Because it's one o'clock, we're ready to go. And then about 20 minutes later that's when everything happened.

CORNISH: That's when the tornado bearing down on Enterprise tore through the walls of the school like a tide through a sand castle. Students were herded into hallways, the auditorium and the science wing.


Ms. JALISA REEVES(ph) (Enterprise High School Student)I feel that we should have got released early.

CORNISH: Fifteen-year-old sophomore Jalisa Reeves as huddled with other students in the science wing when she says bricks from the roof began tumbling down, one just striking her should. Reeves says she's okay now. But she's ticked off at school administrators for keeping the students so long.

Ms. REEVES: I heard that the reason why we had to stay there so long was to keep from making up another day. But to me another day of school wouldn't matter as long as I've still got my life. That's more important than making up another day of school.

CORNISH: Enough people began raising questions about the delay in the dismissal that school officials went on the defense. Assistant superintendent Bob Phares says the school was caught between wanting to release students and worrying about where and what those students would do in an oncoming storm.

Mr. BOB PHARES (Assistant Superintendent, Enterprise High School): We thought we might be able to dismiss by around 1:00 o'clock, but we continued to get one warning after another. We did not want to send the children outdoors or out in buses during - in the midst of all this.

CORNISH: Governor Bob Riley so far has not been inclined to second guess them.

Governor BOB RILEY (Republican, Alabama): I think what the school did is exactly what I would have done if I had been here. I think they saved a lot of lives by doing what they did. There are certain things that are going to happen that's going to cause a loss of life that we can't control.

CORNISH: Back at the high school, Jeremy Boykin says he's conflicted. Standing at the edge of the school parking lot where his dad's car now lies amid piles of broken glass, he says he's not so sure he really would have heeded the warnings.

Mr. BOYKIN: Honestly I can't lie. I feel safer in school than what I would have in my own home.

CORNISH: Enterprise High stands in a circle near the center of town. The streets radiating from it are a tangled web of downed trees and split power lines. The area was under curfew last night, but volunteers are expected to pour into the town center today. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Enterprise, Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.