Police say flash floods have killed 12 at campgrounds in southwestern Arkansas

Friday, June 11, 2010

Police say 12 confirmed dead in Arkansas floods

CADDO GAP, Ark. — Heavy rains triggered flash floods along a pair of southwestern Arkansas rivers around dawn Friday, killing a dozen people trapped in remote valleys after the water rose as rapidly as eight feet in an hour.

Floodwaters inundated campgrounds along the normally peaceful Caddo and Little Missouri rivers, swamping hikers and campers sleeping along the rivers’ banks. This area of the Ouachita Mountains includes second homes, hunting camps and a number of U.S. Forest Service campgrounds.

“We don’t know who was in there last night,” State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said. “This is a very wide area.”

Brigette Williams, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, said that between 200 and 300 people were believed to be in the area at the time of the flooding. She did not know how many of those were campers and how many were local residents.

Williams said the Red Cross would provide shelter for anyone displaced by the flooding.

Sadler said 12 people died in the floods and that officials were setting up a temporary morgue in a refrigerated truck.

Searchers worked along the Little Missouri River in Montgomery and Pike counties, while along the Caddo River at Glenwood police and fire crews monitored debris moving beneath the U.S. 70 bridge.

The National Guard dispatched helicopters to help in the rescue because much of the area was inaccessible by land. Tracy Farley of the U.S. Forest Service said the floods eroded some road beds and knocked trees across roads. Crews with bulldozers and chain saws were sent to the area.

Tabitha Clarke, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock, said the water rose quickly between 1:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. A river gauge at Langley, just south of the Camp Albert Pike area, had a peak reading of 23.39 feet — up from 3 feet deep at midnight.

Between 2:45 a.m. and 3:45 a.m., the river rose 8.08 feet and continued to rise, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors the gauge.

The rugged terrain likely kept some campers from reaching safety, Clarke said. Some parts of the valley are so steep and craggy that the only way out is to hike downstream. Any who had taken cars to the camp sites would have been blocked at low-water bridge crossings that are inundated when the rivers rise, she said.

At that time of night, many campers were likely still asleep when their tents began to fill with water, she said.

By Friday afternoon, water still covered the tires of a pickup parked at a riverside restaurant in Glenwood.

Gov. Mike Beebe, in Dumas for an economic development announcement, said the deaths occurred about 5:30 a.m., when the water hit its peak. He said he did not plan to visit the site immediately.

“I don’t want to get in the way,” Beebe said. “There is an intense search-and-rescue attempt.”

Weather service readings showed that 7.6 inches of rain fell in the area overnight.

Associated Press Writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report from Little Rock; Associated Press Writer Chuck Bartels contributed to this report from Dumas, Ark.

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