Flash floods tear through Arkansas campground, killing at least 16 people

By Jill Zeman Bleed, AP
Friday, June 11, 2010

Flash floods kill at least 16 at Ark. campground

CADDO GAP, Ark. — Floodwaters that rose as swiftly as 8 feet an hour tore through a campground packed with vacationing families early Friday, 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 where cars were wrapped around trees and children’s clothing was scattered across camp sites.

The raging torrent poured through the remote 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.

At least two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued dozens more before suspending their search at nightfall Friday. Crews on helicopters, canoes, ATVs and horses were to resume the search at daybreak Saturday, said Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler.

A call center set up for people to report loved ones who may be missing from the campground received inquiries about 73 people Friday, 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 Friday. “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.

Marc and Stacy McNeil of Marshall, Texas, survived by pulling their pickup truck between two trees and standing in the bed in waist-deep water. They were on their first night of camping with a group of seven, staying in tents. The rain kept falling, and the water kept rising throughout the night, at one point topping the tool box in the back of the truck.

“We huddled together, and prayed like we’d never prayed before,” Stacy McNeil said. They were able to walk to safety once the rain stopped.

A candlelight vigil in front of a Methodist church in the nearby town of Langley drew about 40 people Friday night who prayed and sang the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.”

Pastor Scott Kitchens, from the neighboring town of Athens, said he had talked with victims’ families for much of the day. One woman described losing her 6-year-old child to a torrent of floodwater.

“I’ve had tragedy in my life,” Kitchens said, “but I have nothing to compare this to.”

At one point, Gov. Mike Beebe said the death toll 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 the death toll could easily rise. Forecasters had warned of the approaching danger during the night, but campers could easily have missed advisories because the area is isolated.

“There’s not a lot of way to get warning to a place where there’s virtually no communication,” Beebe said. “Right now we’re just trying to find anybody that is still capable of being rescued.”

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.

“As that river goes down, you don’t know how many people are under it,” the governor said.

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, La., 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: Vehicles piled atop each other, and bodies were in the water. The group sought shelter in a nearby cabin 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 the flood was coming. The area has spotty cell phone service and no sirens.

“If there had been a way to know this type of event was occurring, it’d be closed period,” Nichols said.

Brigette Williams, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, estimated that up to 300 people were in the area when the floods swept through.

“There’s no way to know who was in there last night,” Sadler said. It would be difficult to signal for help because of the rugged and remote nature of the area being searched, some 75 miles west of Little Rock.

The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management sent satellite phones and specialized radio equipment to help in the rescue effort. Portable cell towers were being dispatched to the area Friday in hopes of allowing stranded survivors to get reception and call for help.

Wanda McRae Nooner, whose son and daughter-in-law have a home and a cabin along the river, said her son was helping rescuers.

“I know they’ve been bringing the bodies up there in front of their house until they can get ambulances in and out,” she said. “It’s just the most horrible thing. It’s almost unbelievable.”

By early evening, state police had identified 14 of the 16 bodies recovered, but did not disclose names of the dead, which included a number of children.

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.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning around 2 a.m. after the slow-moving storm dumped heavy rain on the area. At that point, a gauge at Langley showed the Little Missouri River was less than 4 feet deep. But as the rain rolled down the steep hillsides, it built up volume and speed.

Associated Press writers Justin Juozapavicius in Caddo Gap, Chuck Bartels and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Andale Gross in Chicago, and Rochelle Hines in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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