The Forest Service has issued its report on the flooding that took 20 lives June 11 at the Forest Service's Albert Pike Campground. The news release summary is on the jump. It promises an "action plan" by Nov. 30 for a strategy to ensure visitors have sufficient information, to improve emergency response and evacuation plans and to provide further training for employees and volunteers on visitor safety.
The full report is here. It cites many failures, beginning with faulty decision-making in a 2003 construction project that built the campground where most people were killed. It also faults a lack of warning signs, inadequate communication capabilities, poor training of campground workers and lack of knowledge of Forest Service workers.
It recommends construction of a safety zone if all camping areas are reopened, along with warning signs, better communications and more training for all inovlved with the campground.
The report contains a detailed chronology of the harrowing night of flooding and day of body recovery and rescue and a dramatic account of the dogged work it took for the first local law officer to reach the scene.
The area was known to be flood-prone, but the June flood was unprecedented, with a 19-foot rise in the Little Missouri River in just a few hours. The flood exceeded "all historical perspectives and the expectations, planning and reactive capability of Forest Service visitors as well as the Forest Service and local residents."
The report raised questions about a 2003 expansion project that built the Loop D portion of the campground, where 17 of the deaths occurred. Studies showed the area within the 100-year flood plain and warnings were issued about construction that make the area more susceptible to flood damage. Despite this, construction went ahead. Forest Service directives about posting flood warning signs were ignored, despite continuing flooding incidents, included one that required help for flooded campers three days after Loop D was completed. An environmental assessment for the project contained conflicting statements on whether Loop D was within the 100-year flood plain.
The report concludes that James Scott, the former district ranger who oversaw the project — and who decided based on his own visual estimate rather than a hydrologist's report that the area wasn't in the 100-year flood plain — intentionally omitted from his environmental assessment a soil scientist's recommendation that the area not be developed with sewer, water and electrical hookups. The report concludes that the ranger wanted to build more than a primitive campground so as to spend all available money on the project.
The review found problems in construction, too, specifically that a landscape architect and engineer believe they were discouraged from freely raising possible "issues" in the project. No specifications were included for flood warning signs or to elevate campsites above the 100-year-flood level. Subsequent flooding after the project completion should have prompted a re-evalution on signs and other ways to alleviate hazards, but the report said " ... the forest Service focus in management of recreation sites is oriented more on the physical facilities and typical forest hazards, such as hazard trees, and not on flood plain or weather hazards and notice to the public."
The report says the volunteer campground hosts when the flood hit had not been briefed on flood hazards or trained in emergenchy response and didn't have a working two-way forest Service radio, though lack of a radio wouldn't have helped the morning of the flood because the Forest Service has no 24-hour dispatch service. Awakened about 2:30 a.m. by a camper, the hosts called 911, then became trapped in their own camper after it floated downstream and lodged against a gate.
The report commended the response of other public agencies. It noted the difficulty of communicating in the remote, hilly region because of a lack of reliable wireless and radio service. Lacking, too, were an alarm system from river gauges, which were only data collectors, not alarms.
The report concludes there were errors made in the process of planning the 2003 project; the district ranger made an erroneous conclusion about the flood plain; the Forest Service failed to post warning signs despite ample knowledge of flooding potential; the Ouachita National Forest failed to correct known communication problems; volunteer campground hosts weren't adequately prepared for emergencies; Forest Service employees weren't adequately versed on warning rules; the Forest Service lacked a contingency plan for an emergency; emergency response was "valiant and effective," but — given the unprecedented nature of the flooding — even adequate warning and training might not have saved lives.
If camping is to continue at Albert Pike, the report said, it must understand the inevitability of more floods and plan accordingly. It noted that deaths could have been higher had Loop C of the campground, also flood-prone, not been closed for construction at the time and so its use also must be considered in light of risks.
The report recommends a great deal of warning signage, plus construction of a safety zone and ample signs and directions for campers to reach that safety zone. It recommends installing equipment for Weather Service warning radio and Forest Service radio to reach into the campground and a river early warning device upstream from Albert Pike. It also recommended building a memorial to the dead at the high water mark, considered a once in 500 years occurrence.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 22, 2010 — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the release of a recreation visitor safety report by the USDA Forest Service on the circumstances surrounding the 500-year flash flood that took the lives of 20 people during the night this past June at a campground in Arkansas. Although this was an extremely rare event, the Forest Service has done a thorough review and is taking steps to reduce the chances of such a tragedy in the future.
“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of people lost in this tragic event. In the hours after the floodwaters receded, I committed to getting to the bottom of what happened the night of June 11, not only so that we have all the facts about that night, but also to ensure that treasured locations like this one remain available to the public and that they can be enjoyed safely,” said Vilsack. “This report provides valuable information about how we can achieve these goals and prevent similar tragedies in the future, and we will be aggressively moving forward with improved visitor safety actions across the country in the weeks and months ahead.”
Vilsack called for the report following a tour he took of the devastated area with Arkansas officials and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell only hours after the floodwaters had receded. The visitor safety report commits the Forest Service to increase its accountability, oversight, and monitoring of public safety issues nationwide. The agency will develop an action plan responsive to the safety report by November 30, 2010.
Based on the Forest Service safety report, the following national actions are being taken:
• The agency will implement a comprehensive safety communication strategy to ensure visitors have information needed to make decisions about their recreation activities.
• Individual facilities will improve their emergency response and evacuation plans, including training exercises and post-incident actions.
• Training on visitor safety for employees and volunteers will be expanded.
“The best way to honor the victims is to redouble our efforts to provide the safest facilities possible in Arkansas and across the country,” said Tom Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service. “Because of this tragedy, we initiated actions nationally to improve communication of safety messages to visitors, to increase training our own employees regarding visitor safety, and to evaluate early warning systems and their applicability in the agency.”
The full report can be found at:
The Forest Service report builds upon and responds to information contained in another report done by a USDA review team that looked at the events at Albert Pike campground on June 11th. This report is available at: http://www.fs.fed.us/news/2010/releases/10/Recreation-Safety-Report-10-18-10.pdf
A severe storm that struck the evening of June 11. The Little Missouri River Rose from a pre-storm level of just less than four feet deep to an estimated depth of over 23 feet, and sent a wall of water through the campground at 3 a.m. while campers were asleep. Cell phone coverage in the Albert Pike Campground, a favorite vacation destination for generations of Arkansans, was spotty at best.
The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The Agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to State and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world.