US flash flood death toll reaches 18, including six children
Chicago (AFP) June 12, 2010
Rescuers searched miles of rivers and shoreline Saturday for survivors of a flash flood that tore through campsites in a remote forest in the southern US state of Arkansas, killing at least 18 people including six young children.
Survivors described a torrent of water that arrived without warning, sweeping through the Ouachita National Forest and catching campers and families vacationing in hillside cabins completely unaware in the dead of night.
On Saturday rescue teams recovered two bodies, raising the death toll to 18, spokesman Matt DeCample of the Arkansas governor's office told AFP. Six of the 15 victims who were identified were children between the ages of two and seven.
Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe said the disaster was made "all the more tragic" with the death of the six children.
Officials were still hopeful that survivors could be found, but it had been unclear exactly how many people were missing because the Albert Pike campground, which bore the brunt of the massive surge of water, and other sites had sign-in registration records that were simply swept away by floodwaters.
Emergency authorities said they believe there were around 300 people at the sites at the time of the disaster, but it was also unclear how many people had escaped the area.
Beebe said about two dozen people were thought to be missing, including three who were confirmed by witnesses to have been at the site during the flooding.
The cases of an additional 20 people were being investigated after relatives called to report missing family members who may have been at the Ouachita National Forest, according to the governor's office.
"We're still searching. Search and rescue or search and recovery continues," Beebe said on a call with reporters.
"Families with each passing hour, are more and more distraught."
State police captain Mike Fletcher told reporters that the search would be "very time-consuming."
"We got about 20 miles (32 kilometers) of river to cover and it's a very rugged terrain," he said.
Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, who was to tour the flood-stricken area Saturday along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak, said the remote location complicated rescue efforts.
"There wasn't a lot of warning time at all to anybody there," she told CNN. "Cell (phone) service is spotty at best."
Emergency officials told AFP that "cellular sites on wheels" were being sent to the area to improve reception in the hope that stranded survivors could call for help.
Beebe said torrential rain funneled down hillsides into the valleys where people were camping at the beginning of the busy summer season, raising the river level before dawn from one meter (three feet) to seven meters in about three hours.
"I've seen flooding before, but I've never seen water do this kind of damage," he said after visiting the sites.
President Barack Obama called Beebe on Saturday "to offer condolences for the tragic loss of life during the horrible flooding" and told him to keep the government informed of "any unmet needs."
On Friday, three helicopters helped crews on foot and horseback rescue at least 30 people.
The American Red Cross mobilized disaster teams to the southern edge of the park, offering assistance to at least 200 displaced people.
"We have mental health volunteers who are counseling the families, and tending to their emotional needs. These people have lost everything," said spokeswoman Brigette Williams.
The National Weather Service had issued a flash flood alert Thursday, but the more serious flash flood warning did not go out until 2:00 am Friday.
Survivors had incredible stories to tell of how they escaped the deadly torrent or stepped in to help others.
Local resident Janice McRae said she and her husband had rescued two little boys from the roof of a cabin and plucked the children's grandparents alive from the raging waters below.
"We were in bed asleep at about 2:30," McRae told CNN. "The call came in from one of our cabin owners saying that the water was coming up in his cabin.
"So we jumped out of bed and got dressed and went down there. And we rescued two little kids, two little boys off of that cabin," she said.
Terry Whatley, of Garland Texas, said that when someone banged on his door he came out to ankle-deep water.
"Within a matter of minutes it was up to my waist. And by the time I got my mother and nephew out, it was already at neck deep just about, and moving... at 45 to 50 miles an hour (72-88 kph)," he told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
An emotional Whatley said he and his family were lucky to be alive.
"You just kind of think to yourself, 'Wow, this is really not how I planned to leave this Earth.'"
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