June 11 Flash Flood A Top Story in Arkansas

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December 28, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Editor's Note: Each year, the Fort Smith, Ark., Times Record newsroom staff votes on the Top 10 local stories of the year. The Albert Pike Campground flood ranks as the No. 4 story of 2010. Here is that newspaper's report on the tragic event that claimed 20 lives.

Campers planning to enjoy an early summer weekend of camping in a remote Arkansas valley were visited by tragedy June 11 as a severe storm touched off a flash flood that killed 20 people, most of whom had no knowledge of the impending disaster.

The normally sedate Caddo and Little Missouri rivers, fueled by heavy rain, rose from a pre-storm level of just less than four feet deep to an estimated depth of over 23 feet and sent a wall of water through the Albert Pike Recreation Area campground at 3 a.m. while campers were asleep.

Many of the 300 campers in the area were trapped by a wall of water that swept through the campground.

Those in the area reported the water rose at eight feet an hour in the area packed with vacationing families still asleep in their tents.

The force of the water flattened trees, turned over RVs, swept away tents and occupants and peeled asphalt off roads.

Rescuers managed to rescue 60 people stranded by high water in the flooded valley. Two dozen were hospitalized.

In the wake of the storm, rescue workers from throughout the state launched canoes and kayaks to began the grisly task of searching for victims as anguished relatives pleaded for news of their missing loved ones. Helicopters brought help to the campground and ferried the injured out.

Gov. Mike Beebe, who toured the site in the hours after the flooding, declared Montgomery and Pike counties disaster areas. The Arkansas National Guard provided a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter with five personnel on board to help with rescue efforts.

Two helicopters from the Oklahoma National Guard were also at the scene.

Rescue efforts were slowed by the remoteness of the location. Initial investigations indicated the National Weather Service had issued a flash flood warning but communicating it was difficult. Radio and cell reception is limited in the area, and no park ranger is stationed there.

Rain had begun falling around 9 p.m. the night before the flood. After midnight, heavy rain moved into the area, dumping between 6 and 8 inches of rain in four hours.

Law enforcement officers responded to the threat and began to move campers as the water steadily rose.

For some, the first indication of trouble was the roaring of the water in the pre-dawn darkness.

Recovery concluded with the discovery of the 20th victim on June 14. The Associated Press reported the deceased included six children. The youngest was 2 years old. Victims identified were largely from Texas and Louisiana.

Within a week of the disaster, Sen. Mark Pryor called for implementation of steps to make Arkansas campgrounds safer.

The U.S. Forest Service conducted a study of the disaster and released its findings in October.

The Forest Service called for a plan that includes steps such as ensuring campground visitors have information about facilities, improving emergency response and evacuation plans and expanding its training of employees and volunteers in visitor safety.

The report recommends installing more warning signs and construction of a safety zone for campers.

Also recommended are installation of radio equipment to enable National Weather Service warnings and Forest Service communications to reach the campground.

The report also recommends a memorial to the dead be erected at the high water mark of the June 11 tragedy.

The report faulted the Forest Service for poor design and construction of the campground, and for ignoring studies that showed the site was within the 100-year flood plain.

Some portions of the Albert Pike Recreation Area were reopened for day use on Aug. 27. Overnight camping is still prohibited.

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