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Death toll hits 19 in Arkansas floods

Crews got to work looking for bodies in debris that collected after a flash flood swept through a popular campground, as police narrowed their search to one person still missing.
Image: Georgia Baker follows her cadaver search dog Stryker on the banks of the Little Missouri River in Langley Arkansas
Georgia Baker, a member of the Four States Search and Rescue team, follows her cadaver search dog "Stryker" on the banks of the Little Missouri River in Langley in Arkansas on Sunday.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Anxious family members toured the campground Sunday where their loved ones were staying when they were swept away by a flash flood, allowed to see for themselves the steep terrain that made escaping the rising water in darkness so difficult.

About 20 people from two families were brought to the site — the only people still remaining at a nearby church to wait for word of the missing. Rescue commanders helped the families find their loved ones' campsites and to gather heartbreaking mementos, including baby pictures and a child's blanket.

"It's just overwhelming for them. It looks like a war zone here," said the church's pastor, Graig Cowart, who accompanied the group.

As the search went from one of rescue to recovery, 19 people had been confirmed killed in the pre-dawn Friday flood. Searchers recovered one body Sunday in a debris pile, and State Police Capt. Mike Fletcher said that one person remained missing. He didn't say whose body was found, and said earlier police reports that three people were missing were incorrect.

Many people first feared missing are now not believed to have been camping at the Albert Pike Recreation Area, the part of Ouachita National Forest hardest hit by flooding, State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said. Those people are believed to be camping elsewhere in the state, out of cell phone range, he said.

"Typically when people go on vacation or camping trips, they want to turn those cell phones off," Sadler said. "That's the reason they're on vacation."

Floodwaters rose as swiftly as 8 feet per hour, poring 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, and mobile homes lay on their sides.

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.

Most campers were asleep when the Little Missouri river flooded, and by the time they awoke it was likely too late for many. At 2 a.m., the campground was under 4 feet of water, and by 5 a.m., it was under 23.4 feet.

Tangled piles of debris
Crews have searched over 50 miles of rivers and tributaries at least twice since Friday, and three or four times in some places, Forest Service Incident Commander Mike Quesinberry said Sunday. On Sunday, crews used bulldozers and chain saws to look through the tangled piles of debris that lined the banks of the Little Missouri River.

The last time someone was found alive was late Friday morning, and hopes of finding anyone else alive wilted in the oppressive heat and humidity. Temperatures Sunday reached 90 degrees.

The storm surge leveled trees, forming debris piles that reached up to 30 feet high and snagged articles of clothing and camping gear.

Bud Dunson, the assistant emergency coordinator for Howard County who coordinated Sunday's search efforts, warned volunteers to use caution when cutting and picking through the listing heaps.

"They can shift and fall on you," Dunson said.

At the command, "Moki. Go," a light yellow Welsh Labrador retriever sniffed through a 10-foot pile, occasionally alerting its handler to a flip-flop, propane bottle, toy or shaving kit that still held its owner's scent, but not finding any bodies. Divers also scoured the river for clues.

Eight of the 16 victims publicly identified were from Louisiana, seven were from Texas and one was from Arkansas.

Among those killed were three people from Texarkana, Texas — 7-year-olds Kylee Sullivan and Gayble Moss, grade-school classmates starting their summer break, and Kylee's grandmother Julie Freeman, 53.

Funerals for the three were scheduled for Tuesday in Texarkana.

'I don't feel he's gone'
The Smith and Basinger families of Gloster, La., were vacationing together. Anthony Smith, 30, his 2-year-old daughter, Katelynn, and 5-year-old son, Joey, died in the flood. His wife, Candace, survived.

"I know it is in my mind intellectually, but my heart I don't feel he's gone," Smith's mother, Nancy Hathorne, told Shreveport, La., television station KTBS. "My heart really hasn't registered it."

Kerri Basinger survived the flood, but her husband, Shane, and 6-year-old daughter, Kinsley, died. Their 8-year-old daughter Jadyn has not been accounted for.

Fatal flash floods in Arkansas

Slideshow  11 photos

Fatal flash floods in Arkansas

A pre-dawn flash flood inundates an Arkansas campground taking 20 lives.

Kay Roeder, 69, had been visiting the campground since she was 9 years old. This year, she was camping with about 20 children and grandchildren, all in recreational vehicles along the Little Missouri River.

Roeder died in the flood along with her son, Bruce; and his wife, Debbie. All were from Luling, La.; outside of New Orleans.

Bruce Roeder "woke up, must have heard the water," family friend Kerry Hotard told The Times-Picayune newspaper. She said Bruce Roeder ushered much of the family up a hill to safety, but as he turned to go back to get those who remained, the water was too high, Hotard said.

Robert "Lynn" Shumake and his 8-year-old grandson, Nicholas Wade Shumake, died and Robert's wife, Wilene, was still missing Saturday. Robert's cousin, David Shumake, said the couple frequented the campground and that their grandson spent a lot of time with them.

The only Arkansas victim identified was Leslie Jez, a 23-year-old mother and wife from Foreman whose husband, Adam Jez, was listed among the flood's survivors.

"So ready to go camping this weekend," she wrote on her Facebook page Monday. "Kaden is going to love it!!"

Authorities haven't said whether the child survived.