16 killed as flash floods hit Arkansas

At least 16 people were killed when floodwater tore through a campsite in Arkansas, US officials said today.

At least 16 people were killed when floodwater tore through a campsite in Arkansas, US officials said today.

The flood also washed away records of who was there, making the daunting search for dozens missing in heavily wooded forest even more difficult as anguished families waited for word of their loved ones.

Rescue crews planned to resume their search this morning in the Ouachita National Forest, where heavy rain caused the normally quiet Caddo and Little Missouri rivers to burst their banks early yesterday.

The search was expected to take several more days - and perhaps even weeks.

"It's like a nightmare that someone's wanting to wake up from, but you can't," said Major Harvey Johnson, of the Salvation Army. "It's the deer caught in the headlights look."

The floodwater, which rose as quickly as 8ft (2m) an hour, 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.

Authorities do not know how many people are missing. Visitors to the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a 54-unit campsite, are required to sign a log when they take a pitch, but that registry was carried away by the floodwater.

A call centre set up for people to report loved ones who may be missing at the campsite received inquiries about 73 people yesterday, said Arkansas Department of Emergency Management spokesman Chad Stover.

"We haven't confirmed if they were at the campsite, but people have called because they believe a loved one may have been there and they can't locate them," Mr Stover said yesterday.

"As we begin search and rescue operations tomorrow morning, it will give us a better idea of how many people we may be looking for.

"And we still consider it a search and rescue operation for a little while longer."

At least two dozen people were taken to hospital. Officials had rescued dozens more before suspending their search at nightfall.

Authorities prepared for a long effort and said bodies may have been washed away. It would be difficult for someone to signal for help because of the rugged and remote nature of the area being searched, some 75 miles (120km) west of Little Rock, the capital.

"This is not a one- or two-day thing," said Gary Fox, a retired emergency medical technician who was helping identify the dead and compile lists of those who were unaccounted for. "This is going to be a week or two- or three-week recovery."

Brigette Williams, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, estimated that up to 300 people were in the area when the flood swept through.

The heavily wooded region offers a mix of campsites, hunting grounds and private homes. Wilderness buffs can stay at sites with modern facilities or hike and camp off the beaten path.

Forecasters had warned of the approaching danger during the night, but campers could easily have missed those alerts because the area is isolated.

Denise Gaines said she was woken in her riverfront cabin by a noise that sounded like fluttering wings. She saw water rushing under the cabin door.

"I thought it must have been an angel that woke me up," she said. She woke up the six others in her cabin and started packing her things.

Ms Gaines, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had been through this before with Hurricane Gustav.

"We could feel the cabin shaking," said her fiancé, Adam Fontenot.

After the cabin filled with chest-deep water, the group clung to a tree and each other outside for more than an hour. Then the water dropped quickly in just a few minutes.

As the water receded, the devastation emerged: vehicles were piled on top each other, and bodies were in the water. The group sought shelter in a nearby cabin higher off the ground. They were eventually rescued in a Jeep.

State police have identified 14 of the 16 bodies recovered, but did not disclose names of the dead, which included a number of children.

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