Floodwaters that rose as swiftly as 8 feet an hour tore through a campground packed with vacationing families early yesterday, carrying away tents and overturning RVs as campers slept. At least 16 people were killed, and dozens more missing and feared dead.
Heavy rains caused the normally quiet Caddo and Little Missouri rivers to climb out of their banks during the night. Around dawn, floodwaters barreled into the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a 54-unit campground in the Ouachita National Forest that was packed with vacationing families.
The raging torrent poured through the valley with such force that it peeled asphalt off roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the river banks were severely damaged. Mobile homes lay on their sides.
Two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued 60 others.
After the water receded, anguished relatives pleaded with emergency workers for help finding more than 40 missing loved ones.
At one point, Gov. Mike Beebe said the death had climbed to 20. But Beebe's office later revised that figure to 16, saying he had relied on an erroneous figure after talking to an emergency worker at the scene.
Still, authorities agreed that the death toll could easily rise. Forecasters warned of the approaching danger during the night, but campers could easily have missed those advisories because the area is isolated.
At least two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued dozens of others before suspending their search at nightfall Friday. The effort by crews employing helicopters, canoes, ATVs and horses would resume at daybreak Saturday, said Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler.
"There were a number of people early on that state police and local authorities were able to rescue," Sadler said last night. "Throughout the day, there have been people who have come forward and said they got out."
A call centre set up for people to report loved ones who may be missing at the campground received inquiries about 73 people yesterday, said Arkansas Department of Emergency Management spokesman Chad Stover.
"We haven't confirmed if they were at the campsite, but people have called because they believe a loved one may have been there and they can't locate them," Stover said late last night. "As we begin search and rescue operations tomorrow morning, it will give us a better idea of how many people we may be looking for.
"And we still consider it a search and rescue operation for a little while longer."
Campground visitors are required to sign a log as they take a site, but the registry was carried away by the floodwaters.
The governor said damage at the campground was comparable to that caused by a strong tornado. The force of the water carried one body 8 miles downstream.
Authorities prepared for a long effort to find other corpses that may have been washed away.
"This is not a one- or two-day thing," said Gary Fox, a retired emergency medical technician who was helping identify the dead and compile lists of those who were unaccounted for.
"This is going to be a week or two- or three-week recovery."
The heavily wooded region offers a mix of campgrounds, hunting grounds and private homes. Wilderness buffs can stay at sites with modern facilities or hike and camp off the beaten path.
Denise Gaines was startled awake in her riverfront cabin by a noise that sounded like fluttering wings. She saw water rushing under the cabin door.
"I thought it must have been an angel that woke me up," she said. She woke up the six others in her cabin and started packing her things.
Gaines, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had been through this before with Hurricane Gustav.
"We could feel the cabin shaking," said her fiance, Adam Fontenot.
After the cabin filled with chest-deep water, the group clung to a tree and each other outside for more than an hour. But then the water dropped quickly, several feet in just a few minutes.
As the water receded, the devastation emerged: Cars were piled atop each other, and bodies were in the water. The group sought shelter in a nearby cabin that was higher off the ground. They were eventually rescued in a jeep.
Forest Service spokesman John Nichols said it would have been impossible to warn everyone that the flood was coming. The area has spotty cell phone service and no sirens.
Brigette Williams, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, estimated that up to 300 people were in the area some 75 miles west of Little Rock when the floods swept through.
The rough terrain likely kept some campers from reaching safety, according to Tabitha Clarke, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock.
Some parts of the valley are so steep and craggy that the only way out is to hike downstream. Any hikers who had taken cars to the campsites would have been blocked at low-water bridge crossings that are inundated when the rivers rise, she said.Reuse content