Washington: Authorities were digging through the rubble of a Georgia high school on 2 March hoping to find survivors after a string of tornadoes that killed at least 20 tore across the southern US.
The massive storm system was headed north where it was expected to turn from thunderstorms to blizzards and dump up to a foot (30cm) of snow in the northeastern US, according to the National Weather Service.
The service said it had received reports of 31 tornadoes touching the ground around the region as US media showed images of roofless homes with blown-out windows, uprooted and shredded trees, dangling power lines and cars overturned and crushed.
US President George W. Bush, who was fiercely criticized for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was to tour the devastation on 3 March, the White House said in a statement.
“The president continues to monitor the resulting aftermath of the terrible storms which struck throughout the south,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
In the southern state of Alabama, eight teenagers were killed when a tornado struck a high school in the town of Enterprise, CNN reported, citing the town’s mayor.
Students had been told to huddle against the school’s brick walls for hours before the twister barreled down. High school student Brooke Shroades survived the tornado by hunkering down in a cubbyhole.
“I felt like I was on a rollercoaster. It was the scariest thing ever,” she told the Enteprise Ledger newspaper.
“When I heard the train sound, I started screaming,” she said.
Her father, Mike Shroades, who had hoped to pick up his daughter before the storm hit, took shelter in a school hallway with other parents, teachers and students.
“You could feel your body moving from the wind and suction,” he told the Enterprise Ledger.
Emergency officials warned CNN that more bodies might be found .
The authorities also said the storm killed two other people in other parts of the state.
In the pre-dawn hours a tornado spawned by the same storm hit the Murray Sumter Regional Hospital in the town of Americus, Georgia, destroying the ambulance fleet and forcing 55 patients to evacuate, CNN reported.
Two people not linked to the hospital were killed there.
At least seven other people were killed across southern Georgia, and one died in Missouri after an apparent tornado destroyed a mobile home.
Federal authorities, still under pressure from the slow response to the devastation wreaked by the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, announced they were sending emergency aid to storm-stricken Alabama and Missouri.
Alabama Governor Bob Riley said the town of Enterprise, where the high school was destroyed, had suffered “major and widespread damage”. Riley announced he was deploying about 100 National Guard soldiers to assist in recovery efforts.
A school official Bob Ferris said the extent of the tragedy was not immediately clear. “We need your prayers,” he told a news conference.
Local hospitals asked for blood donations and utility Alabama Power said about 15,000 homes across the state were without electricity.
As the storm drives north, the rain and tornadoes are expected to turn to snow and sleet in the region between New York and Vermont.