School officials had moved all the students into the interior halls after the first warnings were issued around 10:30 a.m. by the National Weather Serivce, Phares said. A "significant number" of students were checked out by their parents after that. The school planned to send the rest of the students home at 1 p.m., but then a new warning surfaced, so that was delayed to 1:30 p.m., he said. The storm hit around 1:15 p.m.
Gov. Bob Riley on Friday defended the school officials' actions after touring the area.
"I think they saved a lot of lives," Riley said. "I told the principal, 'You can do everything exactly right and have this happen.'"
Mayor Boswell said officials had yet to determine where the school's students would attend classes for the rest of the year.
He appeared drained as his staff and National Guard crews tried to assess the damage in torn-up neighborhoods. At least one other person was killed in Enterprise, a city of about 23,000 some 75 miles south of Montgomery. Another died across the state in rural Millers Ferry, where trailer homes were flipped and trees toppled, officials said.
In Sumter County, Ga., home of former President Jimmy Carter, Sumter Regional Hospital was in shambles Friday morning. Officials weren't sure whether the people injured and the two reported dead in town were inside the hospital when the storm struck, Weiss said.
Near Newton, about 50 miles to the south, Marvin Hurst was home with his wife and 31-year-old son when the storm hit and the house "exploded." Only a few sections of rear wall were left standing.
"It's just by the grace of God that we got out," Hurst said.
Between 40 and 60 homes were also damaged in nearby Clay County, on the Alabama line, Weiss said. Another tornado killed a man in a mobile home in Taylor County, north of Americus, county Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Lowe said.
Around Americus, the storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines. Several homes and businesses were destroyed. At Cheek Memorial Church, the wooden steeple had toppled.
Marcia Wilson, who lives across the street from the Church, said she heard a huge roar as the storm went through.
"It felt like the whole house was fixing to fall in," she said. "All I could do was pray that God take care of us and he did."
Associated Press Writers Greg Bluestein in Americus, Ga., and Elliot Minor in Newton, Ga., contributed to this report.