Three Texas residents whose children were injured when floodwaters swept 20 people to their deaths at an Arkansas campground have a filed a federal tort claim against the U.S. Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The claim, filed Dec. 23 by Smith County, Texas, residents Natisha Rachal and Benjamin and Judy Pate, seeks damages for personal injury and wrongful death in connection with a June 11, 2010, flash flood at the Albert Pike Recreation Area near Glenwood, The Associated Press reported.
The federal agencies are accused of failing to “properly maintain the severe weather and flooding warning system” at the campground and not correcting “known communications problems that prevented campers from learning of the imminent danger of flooding.”
Seven children and 13 adults from Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas died after heavy rains inundated the remote valley in the Ouachita Mountains and pushed the Little Missouri River out of its banks.
The plaintiffs’ sons were camping with nine others, including one of the boys’ father, Anthony Smith. He and five others died.
According to the tort claim, the campground has a documented history of flooding events dating back to 1940 and the Forest Service “negligently failed to post flood hazard warning signs and notices or to otherwise warn campers of the dangers of flooding in the area.”
Weather Service forecasters sent warnings four times in a single hour to advise people of the potential for flash flooding, but those warnings were issued in the middle of the night and never reached those at the campground. The camp had no ranger on-site, no cellphone service and no sirens, and deputies at the nearest sheriff’s departments were at least an hour’s drive away.
After the flood, workers installed a new transmitter so weather-alert radio signals could reach the campground.
The National Weather Service office in Washington didn’t immediately return a request Wednesday seeking comment.
Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said the agency has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation and referred calls to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We would have no comment at this juncture because it’s too early,” Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said.
A call to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Roy Payne, wasn’t immediately returned.
A Louisiana family who lost three members in the flood filed a lawsuit last year.
In the steamy heat of an Arkansas summer, more than 200 rescue workers spread across the banks of the Little Missouri River on Saturday to search for victims and survivors of a devastating flash flood that killed at least 18 people who were caught unaware in the dark of a secluded campground, according to the New York Times.
They found two more bodies, after locating 16 on Friday, but were worried that perhaps dozens more might be hidden in the thick brush of a craggy gorge. Water surged by 20 feet between midnight and dawn.
As the engorged river — which surged more than 20 feet in a matter of hours early Friday morning — began to recede, some rescuers were able to navigate a 20-mile stretch of river by kayak, canoe and water scooter; others took to the woods on foot, horseback or all-terrain vehicles.
Helicopters thundered above the Albert Pike campgrounds in the Ouachita Mountains, about 75 miles west of Little Rock.
Government officials met with families of victims and said that state, local and federal authorities would continue to devote all available resources until the missing were located.
“There’s not much you can say,” Gov. Mike Beebe said during a news conference in Little Rock. “You try to be whatever comfort you can. They’re virtually in a state of shock.”
Earlier in the day, the governor said, he spoke with President Obama, who offered condolences and pledged federal assistance. An official in President Obama’s cabinet said that the local authorities did what they could to warn campers of the flood, but vowed to review procedures.
While rescuers discovered two more bodies in the dense, muddy terrain on Saturday, family members of victims and those still waiting to hear from loved ones gathered at Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in Lodi, about 15 miles from the campground. Some had survived by clinging to branches in pitch darkness.
“People have lost multiple family members,” the Rev. Graig Cowart said. “It’s hard enough to lose one. It’s just disbelief and horror, and a lot of them are walking around in a daze.”
Rev. Cowart said two families, close friends from Louisiana who were vacationing together, had each lost a husband and two children whose bodies had been recovered. One of the families was still missing a young child, he said. The wives had identified their dead relatives from digital photographs taken by rescue workers.
“It was just devastating,” Rev. Cowart recalled. “ ‘Yes, that’s my husband.’ ‘Yes, that’s my son.’ ‘Yes, that’s my son.’ How can you process losing seven family members and friends?”
One of the families spent Saturday morning clustered outside the church at a table littered with packs of Marlboros, empty coffee cups and boxes of tissues. Several declined to be interviewed, becoming hostile when asked to discuss their loved ones.
The Rev. Glen D. Harris of Amity United Methodist Church, who was comforting family members, said that waiting for news had exhausted and stressed many of them.
“The not knowing where your son or father or daughter is the worst part,” Rev. Harris said. “I don’t know which is worse, knowing or not knowing. And they’re getting to the stage where they’re angry.”
Officials said that as many as 300 people may have been camping along the Caddo and Little Missouri Rivers when the valley was deluged. But the visitors’ log that would have given a more precise number was lost in the sweeping tide, a spokesman for the Ouachita National Forest said.
The volunteer host of the campground who oversaw the log found himself having to quickly evacuate and apparently did not have time to alert other campers, said the spokesman, John C. Nichols.
“Realistically, he was probably doing what everybody else was doing,” Nichols said. “He was trying to survive.”
Governor Beebe released the names of 15 victims Saturday afternoon. They ranged in age from 2 to 69, and six were under 7, the authorities said. Most were vacationing from Louisiana and Texas.
Volunteers canvassing the area under muggy mid-90-degree heat confronted disturbing scenes. Late Friday, Carter Weston, 17, helped load 16 bodies into ambulances to be transported to a makeshift morgue in a nearby town.
“It was kind of morbid, but it had to be done,” said Carter, who lives in nearby Hot Springs.
The raging waters swept through dense terrain in the middle of the night while many campers slept. Terrified families tried to outrace the churning, swiftly rising water, some fleeing up hillsides as tents vanished and recreational vehicles crashed into cabins.
Sawyer Saulsbury, 14, said her mother awoke in the middle of the night, thinking a bear was rattling their camper. When they figured out that water was climbing up the side, they wrapped their two dogs, Luke and Shelby, in blankets and raced up a hill, Sawyer said.
Even after riding out the storm, they remained stranded in the woods through Saturday morning, she said, because roads were flooded and their camper was stuck in the mud. This made for tense moments for her grandmother Linda Saulsbury, who shared a tearful embrace with her granddaughter when they reunited in a gas station parking lot in Langley.
“I could not sit still, I could not think,” Saulsbury said.
Bill Paxton, 53, was in his cabin — which sat on eight-foot stilts above the river — drinking coffee and watching as the water outside rose six feet within 10 minutes, he said. That was when he heard a recreational vehicle crash into his front porch and saw the scared faces inside it.
On Saturday, Paxton told how he stood on his porch to help a couple, their granddaughter and their schnauzer into his cabin.
“We were just glad to be alive,” Paxton said. “We figured we were safe. We weren’t nervous.”
Paxton was one of several frustrated people at the gas station in Langley pleading with the state police on Saturday to let him up to his cabin to survey the damage. After a trooper told him the area was closed, Mr. Paxton asked to speak with a supervisor and said: “Put bullets in the gun. You’re going to have to shoot me to stop me from getting into my cabin.”
A tour of the campground revealed tent sites that looked like they had been invaded by an army of Goliaths.
Huge chunks of buckled asphalt had been deposited in drainage ditches. The back end of a white Dodge minivan was lodged four feet up a tree trunk with its nose pointed into the dirt. A camper had been stripped of its back wall, exposing neat stacks of blankets and an unsliced watermelon.
The detritus of a camping trip suddenly interrupted was everywhere: mangled folding chairs, plastic plates, waterlogged clothing, paperback novels.
At a news conference, Lincoln said: “We’ve got hope; we’re going to keep working.”
Vilsack said the Forest Service Web site and brochures advised campers to be alert to weather changes.
“This thing came very, very suddenly,” he said. “We did everything we could do under the circumstances, but we will absolutely review this, as we should after every circumstance like this.”
Rescue crews took to kayaks, horseback and ATVs in Arkansas at daybreak Saturday to resume the desperate search for about two dozen campers still missing after flash floods swept through a popular campground, killing at least 17 people, according to the Associated Press.
The pre-dawn Friday surge along the Caddo and Little Missouri rivers caught sleeping campers in and around the Albert Pike Recreation Area by surprise, leaving them little time to try to scramble in the darkness to higher ground and safety. The last person found alive was rescued late Friday morning.
Arkansas State Police Capt. Mike Fletcher said there were about two dozen people still unaccounted for as of Saturday morning — a number far lower than some had feared. By one estimate, there were some 300 people in and around the campground when the floods swept through, and a call center fielded inquiries about 73 people who hadn’t been accounted for as of Friday night.
Fletcher said authorities had identified 16 of the 17 bodies found, but that they wouldn’t be identified publicly until their families had been notified. There were children among the dead.
The search was expected to take several more days, or even weeks, and anguished family members of the missing who gathered at a church in nearby Lodi on Saturday could only wait helplessly for word of loved ones. Some cried and embraced one another, and some held their head in their hands.
Graig Cowart, the pastor of the Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church, said there were 24 people still unaccounted for Saturday morning, and that their families were worried sick.
“They’re just devastated. The time for shock has probably gone and now it’s just anxiety building. They’re beginning to fear the worst,” Cowart said.
Cell phone service and visibility from the air in the heavily wooded area are very poor, hampering search efforts. Portable cell towers were dispatched to the area in the hope that stranded survivors would be able to call for help.
Crews on horseback and ATV returned to the craggy Ouachita mountains to look for possible survivors, as searchers in kayaks and canoes explored the tangled brush along the river banks for bodies.
Debris hung from tree branches 25 feet above the bend in the Little Missouri River that the camping area straddles, and rock climbers searched the valley’s steep and craggy terrain. It would be difficult for someone to signal for help because of the rugged and remote nature of the area being searched, some 75 miles west of Little Rock.
Floodwaters rose as swiftly as 8 feet per hour, pouring through the remote valley with such force that it peeled asphalt from roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the river banks were severely damaged. Mobile homes and recretion vehicles lay on their sides. Some described the quick rise of the water as a tsunami in a valley.
Tabitha Clarke, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Little Rock, said Saturday that the wall of water that swept through the campground could have been higher than the 23.4 feet reported Friday because the valley in that area is so narrow. The nearest river gauge, some 4.5 miles downstream, showed a 20 1/2-foot rise in a four-hour period early Friday.
“It would have been even worse where they were,” Clarke said.
Authorities prepared for a long search effort and said bodies may have been washed away. The last body found Friday night — the 16th confirmed dead — was found some 8 miles downstream from the campground.
“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 rolling floodwaters would have sucked debris — including bodies — under the surface of the Little Missouri River and could have pinned people beneath rocks and trees that line the banks of the normally docile stream, Clarke 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.
Forecasters had warned of the approaching danger in the area during the night, but campers could easily have missed those advisories because the area is isolated.
Denise Gaines said she was startled awake in her riverfront cabin by a noise that sounded like fluttering wings. She saw water rushing under the cabin door.
“I thought it must have been an angel that woke me up,” she said. She woke up the six others in her cabin and started packing her things.
Gaines, who lives in Baton Rouge, La., had been through violent weather before with Hurricane Gustav.
“We could feel the cabin shaking,” said her fiance, Adam Fontenot.
After the cabin filled with chest-deep water, the group clung to a tree and each other outside for more than an hour. Then the water dropped quickly, several feet in just a few minutes.
As the water receded, the devastation emerged: Vehicles were piled atop each other, and bodies were in the water. The group sought shelter in a nearby cabin higher off the ground. They were eventually rescued in a Jeep.