Police narrow Ark. flood search to 3 missing people; crews search debris piles along river

By Chuck Bartels, AP
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Police narrow Ark. flood search to 3 missing

LANGLEY, Ark. — Crews got to work Sunday looking for bodies in the many piles of debris that collected after a flash flood swept through a popular campground, as police drastically cut their search to just three missing campers.

Authorities haven’t been able to contact some of the nearly two dozen people who hadn’t been accounted for Saturday, but they don’t believe those people were in the Albert Pike Recreation Area, the section of the Ouachita National Forest hardest hit by flooding, State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said.

He said those people are likely camping elsewhere in Arkansas, and that’s why they haven’t been reachable.

“Typically when people go on vacation or camping trips, they want to turn those cell phones off,” Sadler said. “That’s the reason they’re on vacation.”

The number of missing has varied wildly since the floods hit partially because authorities have struggled to figure out exactly who was in the campground. Cell phone service is poor in the area, and authorities fielded calls about at least 73 people who couldn’t be reached after the pre-dawn Friday flood that killed at least 18 people. A register that would have showed who was staying at the campground was washed away.

Crews have searched most of the 20-mile area down river of the campground, so they focused their search effort Sunday on using bulldozers and chain saws to clear the many tangled piles of debris that collected along Little Missouri River.

Hopes of finding anyone else alive wilted in the oppressive heat and humidity that blanketed the area all weekend. Temperatures Sunday were expected to reach 97 degrees.

Friday’s powerful surge leveled trees, forming listing debris piles that reached up to 30 feet high and snagged articles of clothing and camping gear.

Bud Dunson, the assistant emergency coordinator for Howard County who coordinated Sunday’s search efforts, warned volunteers before they went out to use caution when cutting and picking through listing heaps.

“They can shift and fall on you,” Dunson said. He also warned searchers to look for snakes and spiders and urged them to drink as much water as possible because of the heat.

At the command, “Moki. Go,” a light yellow Welsh Labrador sniffed through a 10-foot pile, occasionally alerting its handler to a flip-flop, propane bottle, toy or shaving kit that still held its owner’s scent, but not finding any bodies.

Divers who had scoured parts of the river declined to say if they found anything of note.

Meanwhile, anxious survivors and relatives of the missing who had taken refuge in a church in nearby Lodi were taken on a tour of the campground on Sunday. The group had thinned considerably by Sunday, and only about a 20 people from two families remained, Graig Cowart, the church’s pastor.

He said the family members were very emotional during the tour, and that some tried to recover their loved ones’ personal belongings.

“It’s just overwhelming for them. It looks like a war zone here.”

The last time someone was found alive was late Friday morning. Only two bodies were found Saturday as swollen rivers subsided and anguished relatives awaiting word of loved ones grew more and more frustrated, knowing that at some point the search mission would become one of recovery.

“They’re just devastated. The time for shock has probably gone and now it’s just anxiety building. They’re beginning to fear the worst,” Cowart said.

Five of the 16 victims identified, including three young children, were from a single Louisiana town, Gloster. Three other victims also were from Louisiana, and seven were from Texas. Funerals were scheduled for Tuesday for three victims in Texarkana, Texas.

The only Arkansas victim identified was Leslie Jez, a 23-year-old mother and wife from Foreman whose husband, Adam Jez, was listed among the flood’s survivors.

“So ready to go camping this weekend,” she wrote on her Facebook page Monday. “Kaden is going to love it!!” Authorities haven’t said whether the child survived.

Floodwaters rose as swiftly as 8 feet per hour, pouring through the remote valley with such force that they peeled asphalt from roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the river banks were severely damaged, and mobile homes lay on their sides.

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

Hundreds of searchers have combed through rugged wilderness between the campground and Lake Greeson, a large body of water some 20 miles down river that would be the furthest any of the bodies could have traveled.

The last body found Friday night was retrieved 8 miles downstream from the campground, and authorities have vowed to keep searching until all the missing are accounted for.

Associated Press writers Justin Juozapavicius in Langley, Tony Winton in the Albert Pike Recreation Area and Jill Zeman Bleed in Little Rock contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS the spelling of Bud Dunson’s name. He had been incorrectly referred to as Bud Bunson.)

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