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16 dead, dozens missing in Arkansas flash flooding

By June 12, 2010Articles

Flash floods swamped valley campgrounds along a pair of southwestern Arkansas rivers early Friday, killing 16. Dozens of people are missing.

CADDO GAP, Ark. — Denise Gaines was sound asleep in a riverside cabin when she awoke early Friday to a sound like fluttering wings. She saw water rushing under the cabin door. The house was being inundated by a flash flood barreling down the remote Arkansas valley. As the water rose to chest-deep, she woke her six companions. They made their way outdoors, clinging to a tree and to each other for more than an hour. When the water receded, Gaines gave thanks for her narrow escape from the torrent that killed at least 16 people. Dozens of people were missing and feared dead. A call center set up by authorities received reports of about 73 people possibly missing. Flood waters that rose as swiftly as 8 feet an hour tore through a campground packed with vacationing families, carrying away tents and overturning RVs as campers slept. “I thought it must have been an angel that woke me up,” said Gaines, a survivor of Hurricane Gustav from Baton Rouge, La. At least two dozen people were hospitalized, and authorities rescued dozens of others before suspending their search late Friday. Heavy rains caused the normally quiet Caddo and Little Missouri rivers to climb out of their banks during the night. The Little Missouri west of Caddo Gap rose more than 20 feet overnight, from 3 feet to 23.5 feet. Around dawn, the flood overwhelmed Albert Pike Recreation Area, a 54-unit campground in Ouachita National Forest where cars were wrapped around trees and children’s clothing could be seen scattered across several campsites. As many as 300 people may have been camping in the area, according to Red Cross and state emergency officials. The deluge poured through the valley with such force that it peeled asphalt off roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the riverbanks were severely damaged. Mobile homes lay on their sides. Gaines and her companions sought shelter in a nearby cabin that was higher off the ground until they were rescued by people in a Jeep. “There were a number of people early on that state police and local authorities were able to rescue,” Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said late Friday. “Throughout the day, there have been people who have come forward and said they got out. 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.”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 dozens of missing loved ones. Campground visitors are required to sign a log as they take a site, but the registry was carried away by the floodwaters. Authorities said the toll could easily rise. Forecasters warned of the approaching danger in 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,” Gov. Mike 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. 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 National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning around 2 a.m. after the slow-moving storm dumped heavy rain on the area. Forest Service spokesman John Nichols said it would have been impossible to warn everyone the flood was coming. The area has spotty cellphone service and no sirens. Brigette Williams, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, said 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,” said Sadler, of the State Police. It would be difficult to signal for help because of the rugged, 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 sent in Friday in hopes of allowing stranded survivors to get reception and call for help. (source-AP)

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