Up to a half-foot of rain swamped popular campgrounds along a pair of southwestern Arkansas rivers late Thursday and early Friday. Hikers and campers flock to the area for its gorges and scenic views.
Gov. Mike Beebe has rolled back the death toll in Arkansas' flash flooding from 20 to 16. His office said he relied on an erroneous figure after talking to an emergency worker at the scene.
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for the governor, said a sheriff's deputy told the governor that the death toll from Friday's flooding climbed to 20 just before Beebe met with reporters near the Albert Pike Recreation Area along the Little Missouri River.
DeCample says the figure was unconfirmed and that the coroner's official tally remains at 16.
Heavy rains caused the normally quiet Caddo and Little Missouri rivers to climb out of their banks during the night. Around dawn, floodwaters barreled through the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a 54-unit campground in the Ouachita National Forest that was packed with vacationing families who were probably still asleep when their tents began to fill with water.
Two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued 60 others.
Kelly MacNeil of member station KUAR told Melissa Block it's unclear how many people were trapped when the floods hit.
"The terrain would have made it very difficult for the victims to get up to safety as the water rose, but right now it also makes it difficult for the rescuers to get around in the area," MacNeil said.
The water quickly began to recede, and anguished relatives pleaded with emergency workers for help finding more than 40 missing loved ones.
"Several people were apparently camped in tents ... and the water was low [Thursday], said Tommy Jackson of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. "And the river went up about 20 feet overnight, which is incredible."
The water poured through the valley with such force that it overturned RVs, peeled asphalt off roads, and swept away tents and their occupants.
Beebe said the death toll could rise. Forecasters warned of the approaching danger, but those advisories could easily have been missed in such an isolated area.
"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."
Authorities also prepared for a long effort to find victims whose bodies may have been washed away.
"This is not a one- or two-day thing," Fox said. "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.
Cabins dotting the banks of the river were severely damaged. Boards hung lopsided from rooftops, and porches were missing rails. Some trees were flattened by the water, bent to the ground by the force of the flood. Others had bare spots where the water apparently wiped the bark clean from their trunks. Mobile homes lay on their sides.
Brigette Williams, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, estimated that up to 300 people were in the area when the floods stormed through.
"There's no way to know who was in there last night," state police spokesman Bill Sadler said. It would be difficult to signal for help because of the rugged and remote nature of the area being searched, some 75 miles west of Little Rock.
"This is not an area you would typically be able to get a cell signal out of," Sadler said.
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management sent satellite phones and specialized radio equipment to help in the rescue effort.
The rough terrain most likely kept some campers from reaching safety, according to Tabitha Clarke, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock.
Some parts of the valley are so steep and craggy that the only way out is to hike downstream. Any hikers who had taken cars to the campsites would have been blocked at low-water bridge crossings that are inundated when the rivers rise, she said.
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.
After the rain stopped, they were able to walk to safety.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning around 2 a.m. after a slow-moving storm dumped heavy rain on the area. At that point, a gauge at nearby Langley showed the Little Missouri River was less than 4 feet deep. But as the rain rolled down the steep hillsides, it built up volume and speed.
Even if people attempted to leave at the first sign of danger -- maybe that was the water lapping at their sleeping bags -- water climbing higher and higher along the valley walls may already have inundated a number of low-water crossings, trapping them, Clarke said.
Authorities established a command post near the post office in Langley, along the Little Missouri. Helicopters landed behind a general store, and a triage unit was set up at a volunteer fire department.
Meliea Moore of Hot Springs waited at the store with her friend whose sister, brother-in-law and niece were among the missing. They had been staying in a cabin for the past week at the campground.
A center for relatives of the missing was set up at a church in Lodi offering dry clothes and food. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.