Forecasters issued 4 warnings in a single hour ahead of deadly Arkansas flash flood

By Chuck Bartels, AP
Monday, June 14, 2010

Ark. forecasters issued 4 flash flood warnings

LANGLEY, Ark. — Before a wall of water swept through a narrow gorge in the Ouachita Mountains, worried forecasters sent warnings four times in a single hour to advise of the potential for flash flooding.

But those warnings, issued in the middle of the night, never reached vacationing families in a remote campground in the floodwaters’ path. The camp had no ranger on-site, no cell phone service and no sirens, and deputies at the nearest sheriff’s departments were at least an hour’s drive away.

By the time authorities could have reached the campsites, the Little Missouri River would have already risen by 14 feet and started to cut off low-water crossings.

As searchers on Monday recovered the body of a 20th person killed in the raging torrent, attention shifted to preventing similar disasters in the future.

Federal and state officials planned to conduct a review to determine what factors contributed to the disaster.

“Gosh darn, I know everyone regrets the loss, but everything can be improved upon,” said Charles “Bubba” Wade, a former state legislator whose granddaughter was killed in the flood that hit the Albert Pike Recreation Area early Friday.

“There can be a better warning system, whether it’s three in the morning or three in the afternoon,” he said.

The campground was overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that anyone who called the agency or showed up at the camp Thursday night would have been told about the flood watch. But the flood warning did not come until shortly before 2 a.m.

“In that circumstance, there was only so much that folks could do,” Forest Service spokesman David Sandretti said.

But John Robinson, the severe weather forecaster for the National Weather Service office at North Little Rock, said the meteorologist on duty promptly warned the counties when a heavy rain developed.

“The heavy rain didn’t start in that area until almost 2,” he said.

Sandretti said the agency would “see what kind of lessons we can learn from this incident.”

On Monday, state police found the body of a young girl and were confident she was the final victim. Authorities planned to continue a limited search Tuesday morning.

The weather service first issued a flash flood watch before noon Thursday. But by 2 a.m. Friday, it issued a flash flood warning, which was simultaneously broadcast via computer to law enforcement throughout Arkansas.

The forecaster on duty at the time also distributed the alert to police radios through a statewide wireless network.

The hardest-hit areas of Pike and Montgomery counties have 90 radios connected to the network, but it was unclear how many officials had the radios on at the time. Sheriffs for the two counties did not respond to calls Monday.

Montgomery County Judge Alvin Black said he was asleep and did not have his radio on at the time, and was not aware of the flash flooding until about 6 a.m. Friday.

The Forest Service also has 15 radios connected to the network, but it’s unclear whether any of those were close to the campground.

As he saw the storm move into an area that had already had rainfall, the forecaster called the Montgomery and Pike county sheriffs offices at about 3 a.m. to warn them.

“He said, ‘I’m really worried about this,’” Robinson said.

The forecaster, whom Robinson declined to name, returned home at the end of his shift around 7 a.m. As he watched his television that morning, he saw the number of fatalities come in from the flood he had tried to warn the public about.

“He called me, and said ‘I knew it. I knew that was going to happen,’” Robinson said.

It’s unclear how quickly authorities acted on the warnings, but a number of factors prevented swift alerts to campers. Cell phone service in the area is so spotty that at least two temporary towers were set up to assist rescuers in the days following the flood. Weather radio signals do not reach the campground.

One of the earliest calls for help that morning came from a state trooper staying at a cabin in the park with his family who used his police radio to contact authorities.

The campsite did not have a park superintendent or law enforcement officer to look after campers. Instead, it relied on a volunteer camp host to help them register for the site.

Arkansas’ state parks, in contrast, have superintendents and park rangers on-site who are required to monitor the weather and warn visitors of any dangerous conditions.

State Rep. Randy Stewart, who lives in nearby Kirby, said the state and federal governments need to look for ways to warn campers, perhaps using systems similar to tornado sirens.

“We need to know what would have happened if we had something there to wake people up and they know what’s coming,” Stewart said. “It’s something that definitely needs to be studied.”

Congressman Mike Ross, who represents the area, said part of that review should focus on improving radio and cellular coverage. The challenge officials will face, though, is making safety improvements while still preserving the area’s cherished remoteness.

“No cell service, no Internet service, no TV, no radio,” Ross said. “Basically you’re out of contact with the world while you’re there, and that’s what attracts people there.”

DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Ark. Associated Press Writer Kelly P. Kissel contributed to this report.

will not be displayed