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Flash Flood Sweeps Campground; Dozens Missing

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Flash Flood Sweeps Campground; Dozens Missing

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Flash Flood Sweeps Campground; Dozens Missing

Flash Flood Sweeps Campground; Dozens Missing

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At least 16 people were killed Friday when flash floods crashed through a campground in southwestern Arkansas. Dozens more are missing and feared dead. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Wade Goodwyn in Hot Springs, Ark.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

A powerful and fast-moving flood swept through an Arkansas campground early yesterday morning, killing at least 17 people. Dozens are missing, but the exact number is not known. A record of visitors to the camp was carried away in the flood, complicating the search for survivors. That search resumes today.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn is in Hot Springs, Arkansas and joins us now. Wade, thanks for being with us.

WADE GOODWYN: Good morning.

SIMON: I gather this was a startlingly quickly and violent storm. What do we know about it?

GOODWYN: Yeah. It was the same storm that flooded central Texas three days ago. It came out of the Gulf of Mexico, blew through San Antonio and Austin, came up I-35, clipped the east side to Dallas, and then wheeled(ph) northwest and headed towards Arkansas. Throughout Thursday night it gained strength in east Texas.

It's been so hot and humid here - heat indexes of 105, 108 - that even though the sun had gone down, this storm just kept gathering strength, feeding on all that heat and humidity during the night. At about 1:00 it reached the Washita Mountains and just cut loose - dumped a wall of water over a large section of central Arkansas.

SIMON: And it struck at an hour of the night, really in the middle of the night, when camping families were asleep in their tents.

GOODWYN: It was, you know, extremely bad timing. There was precious little warning, unless you had an emergency weather radio that turned on automatically. This area is so remote that most of it's out of the range of cell phone service. It was torrential rain, black night. The main campground's a peninsula. It just juts out into a kind of a U-bend of the river, which of course is beautiful under normal conditions.

The rivers here are a calm and shallow three or four feet deep, simple to walk across, perfect for camping. But to reach the main campground, you drive across a low water crossing. So once the flash flood started, it didn't really matter how quickly the campers reacted because there was no place to run to.

The river, it was like it rose 20 feet, eight feet in one hour - and the camping peninsula, it went completely underwater. So residents living on the high ground reported they could hear screaming in the darkness and they went and opened their doors and just listened helplessly.

SIMON: And as I guess we know now, the record of visitors to the camp was carried away in the flood, hasn't been found yet. And so we assume there are dozens of people missing. What do we know about the search?

GOODWYN: Well, the biggest obstacle is the wild and remote terrain. I mean, in addition to these regular campsites, lots of people backpack down to this river, these two rivers, and camp along their banks. There are no official campsites. To do this, you hike down into the valley - it's out over steep terrain - and the officials here are saying that trying to escape from the river in these kinds of flash flood conditions in the dark was pretty much impossible.

So the rescuers are out there on the Caddo(ph) and the Missouri, Little Missouri, in various types of watercraft, searching for survivors, looking for the bodies of those who didn't survive. I think this is a search and recovery operation that is going to have to go on for days. It's steep, it's flooded and it's dense with underbrush.

SIMON: Now, I gather you got in after dark last night. Were you able to see anything of the rescue operation last night or today?

GOODWYN: Yes, I got close. The highway, you know, began to dip and rise as we got into the Washita Mountains. And as I went down into one of these hollows, the road across the creek and off to my right, when I was kind of on that bridge there, the forest was suddenly lit up with emergency lights of four or five police cars and there was an ambulance there. They were about 100 yards off to my right down a little side road.

And although I could only get a glimpse as I flew by, it was, you know, one of those moments that leave you feeling a little sore in the chest. You worry that - you know why they were out there and I could just imagine the scene in the dark down by the river.

SIMON: NPR's Wade Goodwyn in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Wade, thanks so much for being with us.

GOODWYN: You're welcome.

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