CADDO GAP, Ark. - Floodwaters that rose as swiftly as eight 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, with dozens 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.
The torrent poured through the remote valley with such force that it peeled asphalt off roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the riverbanks were severely damaged. Mobile homes lay on their sides.
Two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued 60 others.
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.
They were on their first night of camping with a group of seven, staying in tents. The rain kept falling, and the water kept rising throughout the night, at one point topping the toolbox in the back of the truck.
"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.
At one point, Gov. Mike Beebe said the death toll 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 that the death toll could easily rise. Forecasters 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."
The governor said damage at the campground was comparable to that caused by a strong tornado. The force of the water carried one body eight miles downstream.
While the governor spoke, rescuers in canoes and kayaks were on the Little Missouri looking for bodies and survivors who might still be stranded. Crews were initially delayed in their search because a rock slide blocked a road leading to the campsites.
"As that river goes down, you don't know how many people are under it," the governor said.
Authorities prepared for a long effort to find other bodies that may have been washed away.
"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."
The heavily wooded region offers a mix of campgrounds, hunting grounds, and private homes. Wilderness buffs can stay at sites with modern facilities or hike and camp off the beaten path.
Denise Gaines was startled awake in her riverfront cabin by a noise that sounded like fluttering wings. She saw water rushing under the cabin door.