by Max Brantley
At least 18 people drowned in flash flooding before dawn that tore through the Albert Pike Recreation Area (pinpointed on map) in the Ouachita National Forest. The photo that appears at top in the home page view of our site is a Forest Service image of the main campsite pre-flood.
The Little Missouri River was the source of most damage. The nearby Caddo River also flooded.
Gov. Mike Beebe had announced at mid-afternoon, after arriving by helicopter for a review of damage, that the death toll had risen to 20. But the death toll was revised back to 16 later in the afternoon. The number was revised twice Saturday and identies of 15 were released, most from Texas and Louisiana.
Several dozen people are still unaccounted for and there were an undetermined number of injuries. In the confusion, Montgomery and Pike county authorities weren't guessing whether those unaccounted for drowned or were just caught somewhere removed from ready communication. Search teams made a second sweep through the gorge this afternoon to be sure they hadn't missed any victims and planned further searches tomorrow.
Identifications may prove difficult because campers came from a wide area, including out of state, and victims might not have been carrying identification when flood waters hit tents. The camping spots cover a broad area and police remain uncertain about how many people might have been caught in the flood.
Dozens of people stranded by the flood were rescued by relief workers. The water was strong enough to sweep cabins off foundations and to scour asphalt off roadways.
A refrigerated truck was dispatched to the site to serve as a temporary morgue. By midday, no information had been released about identities or ages of victims. Shreveport TV stations were reporting a 5-year-old from Shreveport was among the dead and a father and his two-year-old were among those unaccounted for.
Many people were stranded by rising waters during heavy rain from 3 to 6 a.m. today. An emergency shelter was set up in a Missionary Baptist Church in Lodi to help those who escaped the flood call friends and families. The state was also working to establish a call center to reunite campers and worried families.
Bill Sadler of the State Police said the Little Missouri at Langley stood at 3 feet Thursday afternoon, but early this morning rose to 23.5 feet. The rise occurred over about a two-hour period. The river flows between east-west running ridges of the Ouachitas and can rise rapidly in heavy rain. This chart graphs the enormous jump in Little Missouri flow.
Following is raw video from Channel 7 of the Albert Pike campground area.
Deaths apparently were caused primarily by flooding of the Little Missouri River, which runs through the Albert Pike Recreation Area, operated by the U.S. Forest Service in a scenic, but remote portion of the Ouachita National Forest. (How remote? A family member of a camper described it on CNN as "about 45 minutes from the nearest Walmart.") The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management also reported flooding of the Caddo River and tributaries.
The Highway Department reported that Highway 369 north of Langley at the Langley Store was closed due to flood damage. (Zoom out on map to see Langley.) The National Guard dispatched a Blackhawk helicopter and crew to be used to search for and lift out anyone stranded by floodwaters.
Rain ranging between 6 and almost 8 inches was reported at nearby weather stations and this caused the huge jump in river levels, which peaked between 5 and 6 a.m.
TV reports say as many as 300 people may have been in the main Albert Pike campground and nearby areas when waters rose.
Local police radio traffic at 4 p.m. indicated some two dozen people were gathered waiting for word of whether family or friends had been located.
An interesting technological comment by rescue workers: Lack of cell phone service in the area hampered rescue efforts. Of course. Who doesn't have a cell phone these days to help searchers pinpoint where they're needed?
Tracy Farley, a spokesman for the Forest Service's Ouachita National Forest division, said she had only sketchy information about the torrent that hit the Forest Service campsite. She said she had been told that rainfall of an inch had been predicted, but the storm cell apparently stalled, dumping more than six inches on the area, a relatively narrow gorge where water can rise rapidly in heavy rain. It's my recollection from frequent hikes up to nearby Winding Stairs, a series of falls on the Little Missouri, that the campground has signs that warn of of the peril of rising water levels. Farley didn't know about monitors or alarm systems in the event of flash flooding or whether the Forest Service had employees on hand at the campground last night. Channel 7 quoted the Forest Service later as saying the campground had no sirens and that communication into the area is difficult because of poor cellphone coverage.
CNN reported that Weather Service radio warnings for the area about heavy rains and flooding went out several hours before peak river levels.
Farley said dozer crews and forest service workers with chain saws had been sent into the area to clear debris, which blocked several Forest Service roads.
This link includes the account of a family that survived the flood in the bed of a bobbing pickup truck.
Here's a web link to scanner traffic from rescue workers.
Channel 4 has rounded up photos from the area.
Storm impact was widespread. The heavy rain dumped unsual amounts of debris into Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs and the sheriff's office there warned of dangerous boating conditions.
Arkansas elected officials offered the usual statements of concern, but the magnitude of the event prompted a statement from President Obama.
Michelle and I would like to extend heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives during this horrible flash flood, and we offer our prayers for those who anxiously await news of loved ones still missing. State and local first responders continue their critical life saving efforts on the ground. I have instructed FEMA to be in close contact with Arkansas Emergency Management officials and to report back concerning any unmet needs; and I will ensure that FEMA continues to coordinate with our state and local partners throughout this tragedy. When natural disasters strike, our first responders are on the frontlines providing emergency assistance and keeping our communities safe. Many of them are showing true bravery today and for that I thank them.
At 5 p.m., radio traffic indicated a police command post was to be shut down. The plan was said to be for searching to stop for the night and the area to be sealed. Searching would resume Saturday morning.
A Twitterpic below (on jump) shows flooding in Glenwood at the Cattleman's livestock market.
Another picture from same source shows flooded bridge at Caddo Gap. It was under many feet of water early this morning.