At Least 16 Dead in Arkansas Campground Flood

CADDO GAP, Ark. (AP) - 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.


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