Search crews canvassing dozens of miles of muddy, rugged vegetation in scorching heat and humidity on Sunday (June 13) recovered a 19th victim of last week’s deadly flash floods that flushed out the Albert Pike campground in western Arkansas, and officials said they were not certain how many people might still be missing, according to The New York Times.
The authorities have confirmed that one person who was at the campground had not been found, but there were still unconfirmed reports of others who might be unaccounted for, Capt. Mike Fletcher of the Arkansas State Police said at an afternoon news briefing.
Confusion over how many were missing has been caused by numerous calls from people who said they had not heard from loved ones but were not sure if they had been camping in the area when raging water from the Little Missouri River swept in under the cover of night early Friday, Fletcher said.
Estimates on the number of people who may be missing have fluctuated widely. On Friday, just hours after the search and rescue operation began, it was put at 24.
“We just don’t know,” Fletcher said. “We’re just going to continue to search as long as we feel like there’s someone in there.”
One impediment to the search effort, he said, is the thick debris that needs to be removed in some areas before a thorough search can be conducted. Fletcher did not rule out the possibility of finding survivors, although none have been found since Friday.
Some anxious family members of those caught in the flood got to see the damage firsthand on Sunday morning. Forest Service officials escorted about 25 members of two extended families into the campground, which is in the Ouachita National Forest.
Each family had lost a relative in the flood and one family member was still missing, said the Rev. Graig Cowart of Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in Lodi, Ark., who accompanied the group.
The riverside campground, a place of fond memories for generations of families, is now a wasteland, littered with wrecked campers, flattened trees and displaced slabs of asphalt roadway. For two hours, the families took it all in, went through possessions and retrieved pictures of children and keepsakes like baby blankets.
“It was for them just to go and have a little time,” Cowart said. “It’ll help with their closure as they move forward and reflect and they can see where they were at. It was just a heart-wrenching experience, but at the same time I think they received a little solace. They could understand it a little better.”
Cowart, unshorn after three days of ministering to the families that have taken refuge in his church’s activities building, said the damage looked as if it had been caused by “a tornado that just hung around.” It made him appreciative, he said, that there had not been even more deaths.
Cowart and Forest Service officials praised local residents and companies for providing more food and supplies than the families could possibly use. Wal-Mart, he said, had sent a truck with ice and bottled water. An appliance store delivered portable freezers.
“We’ve had local people here drive up with checks they’d signed blank,” Mr. Cowart said.
The church canceled its regular Sunday service, but Cowart said he would share a private devotional with the families on Sunday night.
Forest Service officials said they began letting residents return to their houses in the area on Sunday, and they started towing damaged vehicles out of the campground. Fletcher said that 18 vehicles had been towed and that officials were still matching the license plate numbers to the owners. Two mangled pickup trucks were carted past the rescue command post at a gas station in Langley.
The authorities ratcheted up their search efforts on Sunday, using dogs, horses and divers. The 19th body was recovered about half a mile south of Albert Pike around noon, Fletcher said. Mike Quesinberry, who was overseeing the search operation for the federal Forest Service, said crews had searched around 50 miles of waterway at least twice.
Vynn Stuart, who runs a dog search team called Four States Search and Rescue, was on her second day traveling through the jagged brush amid swarming mosquitoes.
Guiding a German shepherd tethered to a long neon orange leash, Stuart, who lives about 90 minutes away in Little River, came across numerous signs of devastation some eight miles south of Albert Pike: uprooted trees, a tipped-over canoe, and plastic chairs and a table. Sticks, dirt and other debris wrapped around trees like twine lashing together sticks. A grassy, open field was like a muddy marsh in parts.
Stuart, who has been working on rescue operations for 17 years, said her team had to cut its search short because of the severe heat.
“It’s been really challenging,” she said. “The debris is so bad. It’s so hot and humid. Snakes are everywhere. We had bear tracks in our area, so we have to keep our eyes out for that. It’s just the worst thing that’s happened.”