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16 dead in Arkansas flooding

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Families of flood victim react
  • NEW: Rescuers suspend search for night
  • Campground registration papers washed away in flood, governor says
  • Some people camp along river tributaries and don't register
  • At least 16 killed from campground flood

Local coverage of flash flood from KARK

(CNN) -- Rescuers suspended the search late Friday for survivors at a federal campground in western Arkansas, where early morning rains and flash flooding were blamed for the deaths of at least 16 people, state authorities said.

The search for people still missing was expected to resume Saturday morning.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said the Red Cross estimated as many as 300 people had been in the rugged Albert Pike campground area, a part of the U.S. Forest Service, but there was no way to determine the precise number. Emergency management officials had put the death toll Friday at 20 but revised the figure to 16.

Part of the problem is that the registry that would have contained some of the campers' names washed away in the flood waters, Beebe told CNN's "Campbell Brown" program.

And some people camp along the river and tributaries and never sign the registry, he said, adding that it could take days to determine how many campers where in the area at the time of the flooding.

Video: Witness: Flood 'a bad experience'
Video: Arkansas woman describes flood
Video: More than a dozen killed in floods
Video: Gov.: Search and rescue mode
Call center opened
The state has set up a call center to gather information on possible missing persons as a result of this flood. The phone number is 888-683-2336. The call center will be open until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Weather
  • Arkansas

Nick Hofert awoke just after 2 a.m. to screams from families, some with children as young as 4, hurrying toward the higher ground on which his cabin stood. He ushered them into his home and then went outside to try to find those who had become separated from the group.

Despite the rising water, he and others found the missing relatives at an RV site.

At one point, Hofert thought the group would have to evacuate his cabin and climb farther up the mountain, but the threat eased as the rains subsided.

"The water was rising faster than I've ever seen," Hofert told CNN's Rick Sanchez. People "were coming from everywhere, like ants running from water."

Ginger Autrey awoke to a phone call notifying her that her teenage son and other relatives who had gone camping at the site were missing. There were reports that the boy walked out off the river bank, but there hasn't been any sign of him, she said.

"I just want my baby, I just want to see his little face," she told CNN affiliate KTHV. "Nobody knows where he's at."

Beebe said the weather service had issued a flash flood warning at 2 a.m., but most people in the area were asleep at the time and missed it.

"So it was just a horrible convergence of a number of events," Beebe said. "And as a result of it, you see this huge loss of life."

Bill Sadler, a state police spokesman, said the search was still on for people trapped in the remote, rural region.

Arkansas emergency management officials said that 36 people were missing. It wasn't immediately clear whether 30 rescues that authorities said had been carried out involved any of the same individuals.

"You know, it's never easy to approach one of these things where there are mass casualties," Sadler said. "But what makes it even more difficult is that you're in a very remote area. And you just can't get enough people in there quick enough to begin searching and trying to help."

A U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman said the agency deployed bulldozers, chainsaws and other equipment to help clear debris.

Video from the scene showed a river coursing through the valley. The floodwaters had overturned vehicles, torn up asphalt, downed trees and crushed cabins.

The secluded campground has been frequented by generations of families who have returned to the cabins each year for decades, said Whitney Bettis, who was relieved to hear that her aunt and uncle survived the overnight flood.

"The way you measure things in Arkansas, I guess, is to the nearest Wal-Mart," Bettis said. The campground "is probably a good 45 minutes to an hour to the nearest, you know, sit-down restaurant or anything like that. It's a very beautiful part of the state.

"I can remember sitting on the edge of the river and playing with tadpoles and catching crawdads. ... I'm seeing the pictures of cabins that I remember from when I was 10 years old. This is really hard to watch."

A spokesman for St. Joseph's Mercy Health System in Hot Springs said five flood victims were in stable condition there.

"The primary mission of the Arkansas State Police, working with local authorities right now, is to get the living out of the area and locate the dead," Sadler said.

He said two helicopters were working to locate survivors and help rescue them. Local authorities were providing search volunteers, and a temporary morgue was set up.

Beebe said the Little Missouri River rose at the campground from about 3 feet Thursday night to more than 20 feet early Friday.

"It's like a canyon, where all that water comes down from the mountains and just goes and is funneled into a small area," he said. "And the river rose very quickly."

He said rescue crews were combing the area on foot, in helicopters and in vehicles. Law enforcement, National Guard and parks personnel were working on search-and-rescue efforts.

U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas, said she was praying for those injured or trapped and praised the first responders at the scene.

"As Arkansans, we have experienced our share of severe weather. Through it all, our citizens remain strong and resilient," she said in a statement.

President Barack Obama instructed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be in close contact with Arkansas emergency management officials and "to report back concerning any unmet needs."

"When natural disasters strike, our first responders are on the frontlines providing emergency assistance and keeping our communities safe," Obama said in a statement. "Many of them are showing true bravery today and for that I thank them."

Janice McRae, whose property sits adjacent to the campground, said she and her husband woke in the middle of the night to a knock on the door from a cabin owner. The sight of flooding and destruction caught her by surprise.

"It was raining, but we didn't know that there was going to be flooding, because we hadn't had much rain lately," she said. "The ground wasn't wet, wasn't saturated. We weren't worried about it."

McRae said she and her husband rescued two boys they found stranded on the roof of a flooded cabin.

She described people clutching to trees in pitch darkness as cars floated past.

The county coroner said he was preparing for more possible deaths.