The website of the automated river gage on the Little Missouri River near Langley, Arkansas, operated by the United States Geological Survey, is bookmarked by most area paddlers looking for a good float in the scenic Ouachita Mountains. But in the early morning hours of June 11, the chart took off to unimaginable levels as a complex of thunderstorms blew out of Texas to dump two inches of rain per hour in the narrow canyons. Between midnight and just after 5 a.m., the river rose from 3 feet to 23 feet; the discharge rate, in cubic feet per second, went from a normal level of about 50 to a number that was literally off the chart, which stops at 20,000 CFS.
The result was that at around 3 a.m. a wall of water swept like a tsunami through the federally operated Albert Pike campground, where anywhere from 100 to 300 campers lay sleeping in tents, RVs and rows of small cabins that had been in some families for generations. No one knows exactly how many were in the campground, according to Tracy Farley, a spokesman for the Ouachita National Forest, because one of the first things swept away was the campground registry—and most of the asphalt parking lot where it stood. Trucks, cabins and massive trees were tossed miles downstream. Those who survived did so by clinging to tree branches throughout the night.
By noon Monday, 20 bodies had been recovered, seven of them children. Emergency responders were hampered at first by rain-damaged roads and the lack of cell coverage in the remote area, but temporary cell towers and heavy road equipment were brought in within hours. As of Monday morning, only one person was known to be still missing, but the body pulled from the river that day was not yet identified. In any event, over 100 volunteers continued to comb the river and surrounding woods, since the exact number of campers affected remains unknown. Among the search and rescue personnel were many local kayakers, most of them members of the Arkansas Canoe Club.
“There was no formal request for our help,” explains Tom Burroughs, the club’s president, “but many of our members are trained in search and rescue, and we know the local rivers better than anyone.”
A crisis counseling team from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was brought to the scene to work not only with the grieving families of victims, but with search and rescue volunteers who had found drowned children still in their sleeping bags or pinned beneath trucks.
“I was camping in that same spot with my nephews in the spring,” said search volunteer Mike Reynolds, who teaches recreation at nearby Ouachita Baptist University and often brings student groups to the Little Missouri River. “We were there during a thunderstorm, and the river started to rise. I kept thinking, this could have been me.”
After a dry weekend, the river had calmed down almost as quickly as it had turned deadly, with the USGS gage reading 4 feet Monday — just a foot hire than normal for June.
--Michael Ray Taylor