US rescuers today resumed the desperate search for dozens of campers still missing after flash floods swept through a busy Arkansas campsite, killing at least 17.
Crews took to kayaks, horseback and all-terrain vehicles to search for victims of the tragedy which occurred just before dawn yesterday, when a surge along the Caddo and Little Missouri rivers hit sleeping campers in and around the Albert Pike Recreation Area.
The campers had little time to try to scramble in the darkness to higher ground and safety and some were swept away in what onlookers described as a tsunami in a valley.
Authorities do not know how many people are missing, and a register of those using the campsite was washed away in the floods. But by last night, a call centre set up for people to report loved ones who went missing fielded calls from about 73 people.
The search was expected to take several more days, and perhaps even weeks, and anguished family members of the missing who gathered at a nearby church could only wait helplessly for word of their loved ones.
“It’s like a nightmare that someone’s wanting to wake up from, but you can’t,” said Major Harvey Johnson, with the Salvation Army. “It’s the deer caught in the headlights look.”
Mobile phone service and visibility from the air in the heavily wooded area are very poor, hampering search efforts. Crews on horseback and ATV returned to the craggy Ouachita mountains to look for possible survivors, as searchers in kayaks and canoes explored bushes along the river banks for bodies and debris.
Portable mobile phone towers were dispatched to the area in the hopes that stranded survivors could get reception and call for help.
Debris hung from tree branches 25ft above the bend in the Little Missouri River that the camping area straddles, and rock climbers were dispatched to search the valley’s steep and craggy terrain.
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 west of Little Rock.
Floodwaters rose as swiftly as 8ft per hour, pouring through the remote valley with such force that it peeled asphalt from roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the river banks were severely damaged. Mobile homes lay on their sides.
Tabitha Clarke, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Little Rock, said today that the wall of water that swept through the campground could have been worse than the 23.4ft reported yesterday because the valley in that area is so narrow. The nearest river gauge, some 4.5 miles downstream, showed a 20.5-foot rise in a four-hour period early yesterday.
“It would have been even worse where they were,” Ms Clarke said.
Authorities prepared for a long search effort and said bodies may have been washed away. The last body found last night – the 16th confirmed dead – was found some eight miles downstream from the campground.
Rescuers said it would be around a three-week recovery effort as the rolling floodwaters would have sucked debris – including bodies – under the surface of the Little Missouri River and could have pinned people beneath rocks and trees that line the banks of the normally docile stream.
River levels dropped overnight, but the stream flow was still high enough today to keep searchers from peering below.
Brigette Williams, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, estimated that up to 300 people were in the area when the floods swept through.
State police have identified 14 of the 17 bodies recovered, but did not disclose names of the dead, which included a number of children.