Search Continues After Fatal Flooding in Arkansas
By LIZ ROBBINS, EVIN DEMIREL and ERIK ECKHOLM
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: June 12, 2010
LODI, Ark. — Rescue workers on Saturday resumed their search for survivors of a flash flood that raged through campgrounds in western Arkansas late Thursday night and killed at least 17 people while leaving dozens more missing. The toll rose Saturday morning when a body was discovered close to the campsite.More than 36 hours after the flood, the families of the missing gathered at a church in Lodi miles from the campgrounds — frantic, grieving and waiting for news from the rescue workers.
“There are searchers on foot, by boat and air, and they’re combing the same area as yesterday, as many as 15 miles of river have been covered,” Bill Sadler, public information officer for the Arkansas State Police, said in a telephone interview on Saturday morning. He confirmed that the body of the 17th victim was located at 8:45 a.m. local time at a store not far from the campground.
“The Arkansas State Police will continue to put all the necessary resources that we have into this area and search every inch of that waterway along the banks of the Little Missouri River until everyone is satisfied that those who are missing are accounted for,” Mr. Sadler said.
Rescue workers do not have an accurate count of how many people might be missing, but about 300 people might have been camping along the Caddo and Little Missouri Rivers when the waters surged by 20 feet late Thursday into Friday morning, during a rainstorm, according to Red Cross and state emergency officials.
In pitch darkness, terrified families tried to outrace the churning, swiftly rising water, some fleeing up hillsides as tents vanished, recreational vehicles flipped over into the current and rental cabins were demolished.
The Arkansas Office of Emergency Management set up a call center, and by Saturday morning it had received about 122 calls from worried relatives, said Chad Stover, a public affairs officer of emergency agency.
“We’ve gotten calls from as far away as Texas and Canada who think their families might have been camping there,” Mr. Stover said on Saturday morning. Bob Lewis, the fire chief of Langley, Ark., said that his crews rescued 144 people on Friday. He added that if half of the campground had not been under construction, the toll might have been even worse.
Those who managed to survive gave harrowing accounts of their ordeals. 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., Ms. Chriss, her 3-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son and a family of four tried to make it for high ground in a camper, but were blocked by surging water. They briefly made it onto a nearby branch, and the other family’s father — “I only know his name is Jerry,” she said — grabbed her little girl and lifted her onto a tree.
The waters then pummeled Ms. Chriss and her son into the river. She 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 branches where they waited, wet and scared, until daylight.
“I was just singing to my son, telling him everything is going to be O.K.,” 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.”
The National Weather Service issued a flood warning around 2 a.m., after the heaviest rains had started, according to The Associated Press. By then, the disaster was already unfolding, and in any case, state officials said, the terrain and lack of cellphone service in the valleys made communications difficult.
As the rivers began to recede on Friday, National Guard helicopters and hundreds of state and local officials worked frantically to search for survivors in the rugged valleys, some of them scouring the swollen rivers by canoe or kayak. Complicating rescue operations, roads in the valleys were washed out or blocked by landslides.
At first, many campers, including vacationers from Texas and Louisiana, had tried to sleep through the torrential rains. But as the rivers suddenly swelled — at one point by four feet in 30 minutes — many tried to run for higher ground.
One survivor, Chad Banks of Texarkana, said his family had tried to escape in their truck but had to abandon it to the torrent. The truck was lifted “like a leaf floating across the top of the water,” he said, and the powerful current tore off the front tires.
They survived, he told Arkansas Online, by lashing themselves to trees on a hillside until dawn.
State officials said they could not recall so destructive a flash flood in recent Arkansas history.
Rains that began at sunset on Thursday saturated the ground before the heaviest downpours arrived between 12:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. on Friday, said Chris Buonanno, a science and operations officer with the weather service’s Little Rock office.
The rain ran off into the Little Missouri River in Montgomery and Pike Counties so quickly that the river west of Caddo Gap rose more than 20 feet overnight, from 3 feet to 23.5 feet.
In the rocky terrain of the region, “it doesn’t take much to get up high like that,” said Tabitha Clarke, a weather service hydrologist at the office.
Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas toured the area and visited with survivors and the families of victims on Friday. “I’ve seen flooding before, but I’ve never seen water do this kind of damage,” Governor Beebe said.
Bodies recovered from the flood zone were being taken to Mena, a town in western Arkansas that was damaged by a tornado in April 2009, said Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the state police.
Anxious relatives of missing vacationers gathered in nearby towns as officials set up a center for them in Lodi. Rescuers said they expected to find more bodies as the waters receded.
As the flood tore through the area, it barreled into Cattlemens Trail Stop, a convenience store and gas station on the Caddo River. Tim Bean, the owner, who lives in Glenwood, said his employees saw the water coming and fled the shop as quickly as they could. Everyone escaped uninjured, but the store was deluged, and on Friday evening it remained soaked by several feet of muddy water. Mr. Bean said it would be a week before he opened again. He said he had never seen anything like it.
“There’s a lot of mountainous terrain around here,” he said, “and there’s no place for all that water to go.”
Liz Robbins and Erik Eckholm reported from New York. Evin Demirel reported from Lodi, Ark. and John Eligon contributed reporting from Lodi.