Crews face daunting search for dozens missing after Ark. campground flood kills at least 16

By Justin Juozapavicius, AP
Saturday, June 12, 2010

Search for missing in Ark. flood could take weeks

CADDO GAP, Ark. — Floodwaters that tore through an Arkansas campground, killing at least 16 people, also washed away records of who was there, making the daunting search for dozens of missing in heavily wooded forest even more difficult as anguished families waited for word of their loved ones.

Crews returned to the craggy Ouachita Mountains on horseback and ATVs at daybreak Saturday, hoping to find campers who survived after walls of water chased them from their campgrounds along the Caddo and Little Missouri rivers. Other searchers in canoes and kayaks explored river banks for bodies that may have become tangled in the brush.

The search was expected to take several more days — and perhaps even weeks.

“It’s like a nightmare that someone’s wanting to wake up from, but you can’t,” said Maj. Harvey Johnson, with the Salvation Army. “It’s the deer caught in the headlights look.”

Floodwaters rising as swiftly as 8 feet an hour poured through the remote valley with such force that it peeled asphalt from roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the river banks were severely damaged. Mobile homes lay on their sides. Some described the quick rise of the water as a tsunami in a valley.

Authorities don’t even know how many people are missing. Visitors to the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a 54-unit campground, are required to sign a log when they take a spot at the site, but that registry was carried away by the floodwaters.

A call center set up for people to report loved ones who may be missing at 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.”

At least two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities had rescued dozens more before suspending their search at nightfall Friday.

Authorities prepared for a long effort and said bodies may have been washed away. It would be difficult for someone to signal for help because of the rugged and remote nature of the area being searched, some 75 miles west of Little Rock.

“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.”

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.

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.

Forecasters had warned of the approaching danger during the night, but campers could easily have missed those advisories because the area is isolated.

Denise Gaines said she 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 violent weather 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. Then the water dropped quickly, several feet in just a few minutes.

As the water receded, the devastation emerged: Vehicles were 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.

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 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. It’s just the most horrible thing. It’s almost unbelievable.”

State police have 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.

Associated Press writers Jill Zeman Bleed 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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