About 300 sleeping campers along a rugged, secluded stretch of the Little Missouri River in southwest Arkansas were jolted early Friday morning by a flash flood that at its height reached 23 feet.
So far, 16 people have been confirmed dead, and a search-and-rescue operation is underway to find survivors, said Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe.
An emergency worker said that three dozen or more are still missing, according to the Associated Press.
“People go there truly to get away from it all,” he said. “There’s little communication, little cellphone servce. The assumption is most people would have been asleep at that time.”
The Red Cross estimates that at least 300 campers were in the area, he said.
Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said it is difficult to pinpoint how many people were camping there because the site is an unpatrolled area where visitors do not need to register.
Heavy rains overnight triggered the flash flood. The National Weather Service reports 7.6 inches of rain fell overnight in the area.
The river has receded down to 11 feet and continues to drop, Sadler said. Normally, the river flows at three to five feet, Sadler said.
At least 30 state troopers, sheriff’s deputies from two counties and U.S. Forestry Service workers are searching the area for survivors and bodies, Sadler said. They are searching by foot and in three helicopters provided by the National Guard.
Sadler said survivors have been rescued, but he did not know how many.
A makeshift morgue in a refrigerated truck has been set up in the area, he said. The Red Cross also is staging a camp in the area for survivors.
The first emergency call to the local sheriff’s offices came about 5:30 a.m., Sadler said.
The National Guard dispatched helicopters to help in the rescue because much of the area was inaccessible by land. Tracy Farley of the U.S. Forest Service said the floods eroded some road beds and knocked trees across roads. Crews with bulldozers and chain saws were sent to the area.
Tabitha Clarke, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock, said the water rose quickly from 1:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. A river gauge at Langley, just south of the Camp Albert Pike area, had a peak reading of 23.39 feet — up from 3 feet deep at midnight.
From 2:45 a.m. to 3:45 a.m., the river rose 8.08 feet and continued to rise, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors the gauge.
The river runs through the Ouachita Mountains about 75 miles west of Little Rock. The area that flooded, the Albert Pike Campground, sits on U.S. Forest Service land known by hikers, campers and fishermen for its gorges and stunning views. It is located in two of the state’s least populated counties.