CADDO GAP, Ark. — Floodwaters that rose as swiftly as 8 feet an hour tore through a campground packed with vacationing families early Friday, carrying away tents and overturning RVs as campers slept. At least 16 people were killed, and dozens more missing and feared dead.
Heavy rains caused the normally quiet Caddo and Little Missouri rivers to climb out of their banks during the night. Around dawn, floodwaters barreled into the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a 54-unit campground in the Ouachita National Forest where cars were wrapped around trees and children's clothing was scattered across camp sites.
The raging torrent poured through the remote valley 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 least two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued dozens of others before suspending their search at nightfall Friday. The effort by crews employing helicopters, canoes, ATVs, and horses would resume at daybreak Saturday, said Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler.
“There were a number of people early on that state police and local authorities were able to rescue,” Sadler said Friday night. “Throughout the day, there have been people who have come forward and said they got out.”
Marc and Stacy McNeil of Marshall, Texas, survived by pulling their pickup truck 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.
“We huddled together, and prayed like we'd never prayed before.” Stacy McNeil said. They were able to walk to safety once the rain stopped.
After the water receded, anguished relatives pleaded with emergency workers for help finding more than 40 loved ones reported missing. Campground visitors are required to sign a log as they take a site, but the registry was carried away by the floodwaters.
At one point, Gov. Mike Beebe said the death had climbed to 20. But Beebe's office later revised that figure to 16, saying he had relied on an erroneous figure after talking to an emergency worker at the scene.
Still, authorities agreed 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,” Beebe said. “Right now we're just trying to find anybody that is still capable of being rescued.”