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 that was packed with vacationing families.
The raging torrent poured through the 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.
Two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued 60 others.
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.
"It was just like a boat tied to a tree," Marc McNeil said, describing how the truck bobbed up and down.
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.
After the water receded, anguished relatives pleaded with emergency workers for help finding more than 40 missing loved ones.
At one point, Gov. Mike Beebe said the death 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 that the death toll could easily rise. Forecasters warned of the approaching danger during the night, but campers could easily have missed those 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.
While the governor spoke, rescuers in canoes and kayaks were on the Little Missouri looking for bodies and survivors who might still be stranded. Crews were initially delayed in their search because a rock slide blocked a road leading to the campsites.
"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: Cars were piled atop each other, and bodies were in the water. The group sought shelter in a nearby cabin that was 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 that 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.
A trooper on duty noticed high water about 3 a.m. and notified the sheriff's department, which responded to the scene.
The water is usually low, allowing people to wade and fish in it during the summer, 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," state police spokesman Bill 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.
Campground visitors are required to sign a log as they take a site, but the registry was carried away by the floodwaters.
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."
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 nearby 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.
Authorities established a command post near the post office in Langley, along the Little Missouri. Helicopters landed behind a general store, and a triage unit was set up at a volunteer fire department.
Meliea Moore of Hot Springs waited at the store with her friend whose sister, brother-in-law and niece were among the missing. They had been staying in a cabin for the past week at the campground.
A center for relatives of the missing was set up at a church in Lodi offering dry clothes and food.
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