The pre-dawn Friday surge along the Caddo and Little Missouri rivers caught sleeping campers in and around the Albert Pike Recreation Area by surprise, leaving them little time to try to scramble in the darkness to higher ground and safety. The last person found alive was rescued late on Friday morning.
Arkansas State Police Captain Mike Fletcher said there were about two-dozen people still unaccounted for as of yesterday morning – a number far lower than some had feared. By one estimate, there were 300 people in and around the campground when the floods swept through, and a call centre fielded inquiries about 73 people who hadn't been accounted for.
Authorities have identified 16 of the 17 bodies found, but they won't be named publicly until their families have been notified. There were children among the dead.
The search was expected to take several more days, or even weeks, and anguished relatives of the missing who gathered at a church in nearby Lodi could only wait helplessly for word of loved ones. Some cried and embraced one another, while some held their heads in their hands. "They're just devastated. The time for shock has probably gone and now it's just anxiety building. They're beginning to fear the worst," said Graig Cowart, pastor of the Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church.
Mobile phone signals and visibility from the air in the heavily-wooded area are very poor, hampering search efforts. Portable mobile phone masts were dispatched to the area in the hope that stranded survivors would be able to call for help.
Crews on horseback and ATVs returned to the Ouachita mountains to look for survivors, as searchers in kayaks and canoes explored the tangled brush along the river banks for bodies.
Debris hung from tree branches 25ft above the bend in the Little Missouri River that the camping area straddles, and rock climbers searched 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.
Mitchell Gatlin, a volunteer searcher from Langley, said he didn't find anyone. He said he was amazed at the destruction wrought by the floods, saying it looked like a powerful tornado had passed through.
Senator Blanche Lincoln, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and US Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell toured the devastated area and were due to address the media last night.
Floodwaters rose as swiftly as 8ft per hour, poring 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. Some described the quick rise of the water as a tsunami in a valley.
Tabitha Clarke, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Little Rock, said yesterday that the wall of water that swept through the campground could have been higher than the reported 23.4ft because the valley in that area is so narrow. The nearest river gauge, some 4.5 miles downstream, showed a 20.5ft rise in a four-hour period early Friday.
"It would have been even worse where they were," Clarke said.
Authorities are preparing for a long search effort and said bodies may have been washed away. The last body found on Friday night – the 16th confirmed dead – was found some eight miles downstream from the campground.
"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 campers who remain unaccounted for. "This is going to be a week or two- or three-week recovery."
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, Clarke said.
Brigette Williams, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, estimated that up to 300 people were in the area when the floods swept through.
Forecasters had warned of the approaching danger in the area during the night, but campers could easily have missed those advisories because the area is isolated.
Denise Gaines said she was startled awake 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.
Gaines, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had been through violent weather before with Hurricane Gustav.
"We could feel the cabin shaking," said her fiance, 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, several feet in just a few minutes.
As the water receded, the devastation emerged: vehicles were piled on top of 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.
The river runs through the Ouachita Mountains about 75 miles west of Little Rock.
The area that flooded, the Albert Pike, sits on US Forest Service land known by walkers, campers and fishermen for its gorges and stunning views. It is located in one of the most remote parts of Arkansas.
A makeshift morgue in a refrigerated lorry has been set up in the area. The Red Cross is also staging a camp in the area for survivors.