At Arkansas Campground, A Search Amid Devastation At the Albert Pike campground, pickup trucks and 25-foot campers are strewn about and massive trees are rolled flat like stalks of wheat. Rescuers are still looking for people who remain missing after a flash flood claimed 18 lives.
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At Arkansas Campground, A Search Amid Devastation

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At Arkansas Campground, A Search Amid Devastation

At Arkansas Campground, A Search Amid Devastation

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The search continues in Arkansas for survivors of a flash flood along the Caddo and Little Missouri Rivers that has claimed 18 lives. Authorities say two dozen people remain missing.

From southwest Arkansas, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN: It's still beautiful at the Albert Pike Campground in the Ouachita National Forest. The sun streams through the tall trees and the soft mountains rise from the Little Missouri River. But bring your gaze down from the sky and it's a little different story.

Mr. JOHN NICHOLS (Geologist, National Forest Service): What you're looking at is the campsites that people were occupying and you can see what the condition is on those campsites.

GOODWYN: John Nichols is a geologist with the National Forest Service. Pickup trucks and 25-foot campers are strewn about the campground as if Mother Nature had turned into a spoiled child and thrown a tantrum. Next to the river, massive trees are rolled flat like stalks of wheat. But perhaps the most shocking portrait is something that doesn't seem shocking at all when you first see it.

It's a large dirty white square in a tree. When you finally figure out what you're looking at, it's still hard to get your mind around. It's a concrete pad, intact, three inches thick, about the size of a small hotel room. Each campsite had one with a picnic table bolted into it.

Mr. NICHOLS: You've got asphalt and pads, and so the concrete pads that have been lifted out of place and turned over and jockeyed around, an indication of just how powerful the water system was that came through here.

GOODWYN: It's impossible to stand amid the devastation and not imagine the horror just after midnight Thursday. If the smashed campers and pickup trucks testify to the power of the water, the small mountain that abuts the campground is evidence of the speed of the catastrophe. Although the hill is steep and full of brush, it's just 75 yards away from the campsites. Make it up that hill 10 feet and you don't drown.

But the water rose fast and it moved fast. Nichols says if you slipped you most likely didn't make it back to your feet.

Mr. NICHOLS: If you look over across the street there on the side of the hill, you can see where the water flattened down the grass. It's about seven or eight feet above us where we're at here.

GOODWYN: It doesn't look like a ridge too far, yet it seems like it was for people.

Mr. NICHOLS: When water starts rising that fast, you know, it was pouring off the banks; it was pouring off everywhere, just swelling this area up.

GOODWYN: And, of course, there were people who were incapable of an athletic sprint through a torrent of water in the dark of night - young children and grandparents. Some families climbed on top of their campers and floated down the river in their unlikely boats and were amazingly rescued.

One rescuer told of a teenaged girl who survived by wrapping her arms and legs around a massive tree, the water squashing her like a bug on the windshield. By the time it was over, the skin was flayed from the girl's front, from her neck to her ankles, by the friction of the tree bark. She could barely walk, but she held on and lived.

At least 18 other campers did not make it - they drowned - and the search for two dozen more who are missing continues. On the water, searchers are using kayaks and canoes. On the banks, it's on horseback, on foot using trained dogs when possible.

John Strom is with the U.S. Forest Service.

Mr. JOHN STROM (U.S. Forest Service): We're recombing the areas that we've been in before. We're expanding the search out into the flood plains and the flats. We're looking up into the vegetation where the water level was high. We're looking under debris piles and really combing the area well.

GOODWYN: There have been questions about whether the campers in the Albert Pike Campground should've had more warning. Those who entered through the main entrance were told a weather system was moving through, but neither the Forest Service nor the National Weather Service had a clue what was about to happen.

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary, traveled to Arkansas to inspect the campground.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): This thing came very, very suddenly, and as you all probably know, not everybody necessarily entered the forest through the main entrance of the forest. There are many ways to get in to the area. We did everything we could do under the circumstances. But we will absolutely review this, as we should.

GOODWYN: Today, the search for bodies will continue. Nobody has lost hope that a rescue could still be possible. But for the families of those who are missing, shock has already turned to grief.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, in southwest Arkansas.

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