CADDO GAP Flash floods swamped campgrounds along a pair of southwestern Arkansas rivers early Friday, killing at least 16 people and leaving dozens missing.
About 60 people have been rescued so far, including a woman reportedly pulled from the Caddo River near Amity.
But the tragic toll was evident at the site of the worst flooding, with body bags lining the river at the campgrounds where dozens were vacationing.
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.
Family members and first responders are holding a candlelight vigil for victims of the flooding at 8:30 p.m.
The normally peaceful Caddo and Little Missouri rivers rose by 20 feet overnight, swamping hikers and campers spending the night in the remote and normally serene Ouachita Mountains. The area also includes second homes, hunting camps and U.S. Forest Service campgrounds.
Several recreational areas dot in the remote southwestern region of the state, with the the Ouachita National Forest covering 1.8 million acres in central Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma.
The Albert Pike Recreation Area, a 54-unit campground in the Ouachita National Forest, was packed with vacationing families, many of them from Louisiana and Texas, said Gary Fox, a retired emergency medical technician helping out families. Two dozen people were hospitalized and another 60 were rescued from the steep Ouachita Mountains valley.
“This is not a one- or two-day thing,” Fox said outside a command post near Langley, along the Little Missouri. “This is going to be a week or two- or three-week recovery.”
Two dozen people were hospitalized. Five flood victims were in stable condition at the St. St. Joseph Mercy Health System in Hot Springs, a spokesman said.
Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler says he does not know whether those killed early Friday were campers or area residents. He says officials moved a refrigerated truck to Langley to use as a temporary morgue. Bodies were being transported to Mena for family members to retrieve.
Gov. Mike Beebe said rescuers are searching for anyone still trapped by the flooding, but that they do not know how many there may be. He said the water level was at 3 feet Thursday night in Montgomery County and peaked at 23.5 feet Friday morning.
At one point this afternoon, Beebe said the toll had climbed to 20 people. But his office later took that number back down to 16.
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.
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.
It was unlikely that many of the missing could have left the area on their own after the flood. Fox, the coordinator for families, said nearly everyone lost their vehicles when the floodwaters swept through the recreation area.
Marc and Stacy McNeil of Marshall, Texas, survived the flooding by pulling their pickup 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.
By dawn the rain stopped, the water receded and they were able to walk to safety.
Tabitha Clarke, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock, said the water rose quickly between 1:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. A river gauge at Langley, just south of the Camp Albert Pike area, had a peak reading of 23.39 feet — up from 3 feet deep at midnight.
Between 2:45 a.m. and 3:45 a.m., the river rose 8.08 feet and continued to rise, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors the gauge.
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 office, which responded to the scene.
He said the water is usually low, allowing people to wade and fish in it during the summer, Nichols said.
The rugged terrain likely kept some campers from reaching safety, Clarke said. Some parts of the valley are so steep and craggy that the only way out is to hike downstream. Any who had taken cars to the camp sites would have been blocked at low-water bridge crossings that are inundated when the rivers rise, she said.
At that time of night, many campers were likely still asleep when their tents began to fill with water, she said.
Brigette Williams, spokesman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, said that between 200 and 300 people were believed to be in the area at the time of the flooding. She did not know how many of those were campers and how many were local residents.
Williams said the Red Cross would provide shelter for anyone displaced by the flooding.
According to a news release, the Arkansas National Guard has deployed a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and crew to the campground to assist with rescue operations. The helicopter is equipped with lift capability, which provides its soldiers the ability to be hoisted down into flooded areas to rescue stranded personnel.
Weather service readings showed that 7.6 inches of rain fell in the area overnight.
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.
Read tomorrow's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.
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Information for this article was contributed by Jill Zeman Bleed of The Associated Press.