Floodwaters that rose as swiftly as 8 feet an hour rushed into a remote Arkansas valley early Friday, killing at least 16 people, many of them campers who became trapped by a devastating wall of water. Dozens more were missing and feared dead.
It started raining Thursday evening, a powerful storm moving through the Southwestern part of the state, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller. At midnight, the normally peacefully Little Missouri measured just three feet. Hours later, it had swollen to more than 20 feet.
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.
The water poured through the valley with such force that it overturned RVs, peeled asphalt off roads, and swept away tents and their occupants.
Two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued 60 others.
Craig O'Neill, with CBS affiliate KTHV in Little Rock told CBS News anchor Harry Smith that campers heard no warning and when they opened doors, water rushed in.
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 tool box in the back of the truck.
"We huddled together, and prayed like we'd never prayed before." Stacy McNeil said.
They were able to walk to safety once the rain stopped.
After the water receded, anguished relatives pleaded with emergency workers for help finding more than 40 missing loved ones.
President Barack Obama issued a statement Friday saying he has instructed FEMA to coordinate with Arkansas Emergency Management officials and offered his condolences to the families and friends of those who have died in the flood.
Gov. Mike Beebe said the death toll could rise. Forecasters warned of the approaching danger during the night, but campers could easily have missed those advisories because the area is isolated.
"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."
The death toll had previously been reported as 20 which the governor's office had attributed to an erroneous figure given by an emergency worker at the scene.
The governor said damage at the campground was comparable to that caused by a strong tornado. The force of the water carried one body 8 miles downstream.
While the governor spoke, rescuers in canoes and kayaks were on the Little Missouri looking for bodies and survivors who might still be stranded. Crews were initially delayed in their search because a rock slide blocked a road leading to the campsites.
"As that river goes down, you don't know how many people are under it," the governor said.
Authorities prepared for a long effort to find other corpses that may have been washed away.
"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 who were unaccounted for.
"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 rushing water. Others had bare spots where the flood apparently wiped the bark clean from their trunks. Mobile homes lay on their sides.
Forest Service spokesman John Nichols said it would have been impossible to warn everyone that the flood was coming. The area has spotty cell phone service and no sirens.
"If there had been a way to know this type of event was occurring, it'd be closed period," Nichols said.
A trooper on duty noticed high water about 3 a.m. and notified the sheriff's department, which responded to the scene.
He said the water is usually low, allowing people to wade and fish in it during the summer, Nichols said.
Brigette Williams, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, estimated that up to 300 people were in the area when the floods swept 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.
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management sent satellite phones and specialized radio equipment to help in the rescue effort.
Campground visitors are required to sign a log as they take a site, but the registry was carried away by the floodwaters.
Wanda McRae Nooner, whose son and daughter-in-law have a home and a cabin along the river, said her son was helping rescuers.
"I know they've been bringing the bodies up there in front of their house until they can get ambulances in and out. It's just the most horrible thing. It's almost unbelievable."
The rough terrain 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.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning around 2 a.m. after the 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, 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.