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Arkansas flash flood kills at least 16, dozens missing

CADDO GAP, Ark. — About 15 minutes after the rain really started to pour, water gushed into the Banks' family tent at the Albert Pike Recreation Area in southwest Arkansas.

Startled awake in the middle of the night, the five people from Texarkana, Texas, crawled out into the soggy darkness and raced to their pickup truck. Floodwaters were rising as fast as 8 feet an hour from the Caddo and Little Missouri rivers.

In no time at all, Chad Banks said, the raging torrent had topped the pickup's doors. Banks gunned the engine and raced 50 feet up the side of a mountain, but the water kept coming and covered the truck again.

"The current was so strong it literally took the tires off my rims on the front of the truck,'' Banks said. "We barely made it out.''

At least 16 people were killed and dozens more were missing and feared dead Friday after the floodwaters barreled through the 54-unit campground packed with vacationing families.

"We just abandoned the truck and went and tied ourselves to trees and waited for the water to go down,'' Banks told Arkansas-Online.com. "It was still waist-deep at daylight, but we could at least see to find our way out.''

The raging torrent poured through the valley in the Ouachita National Forest 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 first, many campers had tried to sleep through the torrential rains. But as the rivers suddenly swelled many tried to run for higher ground.

"It was like ants running from water," said Nick Hofert, a resident who said that about 2:15 a.m. he helped several families who were scrambling up to his unflooded cabin.

Children were screaming as they fled for their lives, he told CNN.

Two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued 60 others.

Authorities said the death toll could easily rise. Forecasters had 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," 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.

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.

Kayla Chriss, 22, of Vivian, La., and her family had been camping in the area since Monday.

"Without warning everything started washing away," she said.

Around 2:30 a.m., Chriss, her 3-year-old daughter and her 4-year-old son were pummeled into the floodwaters. She held her son between her legs but watched in horror as her daughter floated out of reach.

Miraculously, a man — "I only know his name is Jerry," she said — grabbed the little girl and lifted her onto a tree. Chriss said she started to black out when her hair got caught on a jutting limb, rousing her so she could pull herself and her son onto tree branches where they waited, wet and scared, until daylight.

"I was just singing to my son, telling him everything is going to be okay," she said Friday evening, shortly after being discharged from a hospital with only minor sprains; her son had a black eye. "I was just trying to find a way to keep him out of the water. If it wasn't for him being there, I wouldn't have made it. He kept me going." After the water receded, anguished relatives pleaded with emergency workers for help finding more than 40 missing loved ones.

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 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.

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.

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."

By early evening, state police had identified 14 of the 16 bodies recovered, but they did not disclose names of the dead, which included a number of children.

Teams planned to search until dark. Police said no survivors had been found since late morning.

Information from arkansasonline.com, the Associated Press and the New York Times was included in this report.

How it happened

. A storm system moved from northeast Texas into southwest Arkansas on Thursday.

. The system brought two rounds of showers and thunderstorms during the afternoon and evening.

. By early morning Friday, rain was widespread from Texarkana to Little Rock. More than 7 inches of rain fell from the slow moving storm. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning about 2 a.m.

. So much rain in such a short time in the narrow valleys around the rivers led to flash flooding. The water built up volume and speed rolling down the steep hillsides. The Little Missouri River, for example, rose from 3 feet to 23.5 feet in just a few hours.

Source: National Weather Service

Arkansas flash flood kills at least 16, dozens missing 06/12/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 12, 2010 12:28am]

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