Amateurs in Arkansas Provide Support to Local Authorities after Flood Kills 20
In the early hours of Friday, June 11, as many as 300 campers were taken unawares when somewhere between 6 and 10 inches of rain fell in the rugged Ouachita Mountains as heavy rains caused the normally quiet Caddo and Little Missouri rivers to climb out of their banks during the night. Around dawn, floodwaters barreled into the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a 54-unit campground in the Ouachita National Forest, about 75 miles west of Little Rock. Cars were wrapped around trees and children’s clothing could be seen scattered across several campsites. In all, authorities said that 20 people lost their lives; 18 of the 20 victims have been publicly identified, among them eight children age 7 or younger. Eight of the 18 were from Louisiana, seven were from Texas and three were from Arkansas. The Pike County Sherriff requested the assistance of Amateur Radio operators to assist with search and rescue operations, as well as communications support, at the site.
The day before the flood, ARRL Arkansas Section Manager J.M. Rowe, N5XFW, was on his way to Plano, Texas to attend HamCom in Plano; Rowe also serves as the Arkansas Section Emergency Coordinator. “We went through some very heavy downpours southwest of Texarkana,” he told the ARRL. “This storm system eventually caused the flash flood in Montgomery and Pike Counties of Arkansas. My wife Debbie, KD5UPS, is a commercial airline pilot. She sent me a text from the Tampa airport at 11 AM on Friday after seeing part of a scrolling news item about the Albert Pike Campgrounds, part of my ‘stomping grounds.’ I happened to be standing next to the National Weather Service booth at HamCom and they told me there had been a flash flood at the campground and people had been killed.”
The National Weather Service issued a flood warning about 2 AM -- just after the heaviest rains had started. As the heaviest rains began hitting, a gauge at Langley showed the Little Missouri River was less than 4 feet deep. The river climbed to 20 feet within four hours. State officials said that the terrain and lack of cell phone service in the valleys made communication difficult. Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe said damage at the campground was comparable to that caused by a strong tornado; the force of the water carried one body 8 miles downstream.
Later that afternoon, the Arkansas Department of Information Services (DIS) and the Arkansas Wireless Information Network (AWIN, the statewide P25 digital trunked radio system on 700/800 MHz) included Rowe in an Emergency Support Function 2 (Communications) Conference Call. “They said they were sending an SOW (Site on Wheels) and a COW (Cellular on Wheels) to augment existing infrastructure,” he explained. “I was very concerned about the terrain and the signal propagation of those systems. Those familiar with the Ouachita Mountains will understand those concerns.”
Despite temporary cell phone towers being installed, emergency personnel still needed help communicating in the remote Arkansas wilderness. According to Arkansas Section Public Information Coordinator Josh Carroll, N5JLC, the cellular towers and the cellular services that have been put in place are functioning, “but the problem is they’re working for a certain portion of the affected area, and the area we’re currently concerned with is still very spotty as far as cellular service and communications.”
As Rowe traveled back to Arkansas on Saturday, he said he was able to listen to the hams on the scene coordinating search teams: “The 146.925 repeater, sponsored by Howard County Search and Rescue, was very busy with tactical traffic. The net controllers -- KF5CQT, KC5JTA, N5VFJ and N5THS -- were doing a great job. They had their communications van at the command post and I was invited to view the operation. It was too late to go on Saturday, so I went the next day.”
When he arrived at the scene, things were in high gear. “Many volunteer teams and individuals were searching the banks, debris piles and the water for victims,” he told the ARRL. “The activity was being coordinated by Chief Deputy Sheriff of Pike County Jack Naron, KE5ZME, and County Deputy Emergency Manager Floyd Dunson, KC5BYB. We made plans for Monday, and I was tasked with finding ham operators capable of strenuous duty to be matched with search teams that did not have communications. There was no way to estimate the number of operators needed, because nobody knew how many spontaneous volunteer searchers there would be.”
Rowe contacted Carroll, who quickly put together a release asking for operators who would match the criteria. “A call went out on the Central Arkansas UHF Society and the AR Link System repeaters Sunday night,” Rowe said. “The response was exactly what I hoped: In-shape operators willing to traverse difficult terrain in a difficult situation in a difficult environment. That’s a lot to ask for.”
Howard County Search and Rescue Team (HCSAR) member Freda Davis, N5VFJ, said that the Howard County Office of Emergency Services (OES) requested that HCSAR be deployed to assist with the Little River flood search operations. “We arrived Saturday and assisted until the search teams were called off at 3 PM on Monday, June 14. Throughout the operation, HCSAR team members’ skills were utilized in incident coordination, communications, map reading and search and rescue.” HCSAR members assisted the Pike County Sheriff Office, OES, the Forestry Service and the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM) in coordination of searches, as well as participating in the actual search operations.
Davis said that officials used the HCSAR Communications Van (SARCOM) as the Communications Center for the Langley Fire Station deployment area. Through the use of the SARCOM Van, team members, who were also ham radio operators, communicated with searchers on the area frequencies -- Amateur Radio, police, fire, AWIN and ambulance -- but found that the HCSAR Amateur Radio repeater on frequency of 146.925 seemed in many cases to be the only way to communicate rescuers.
On Monday, Rowe helped match operators with teams and single volunteers from Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia and Arkansas: “The ham response had been so good that we had more operators than was necessary. I am very proud of the ham community in Arkansas. I was particularly surprised by the number of fully outfitted teams that arrived from out of state. It turned out that they had someone from their community among the victims -- they couldn’t not come.”
As the rivers began to recede, National Guard helicopters and hundreds of state and local officials worked frantically to search for survivors in the rugged valleys, some of them scouring the swollen rivers by canoe or kayak. Roads in the valleys were washed out or blocked by landslides, complicating rescue operations. “As that river goes down, you don’t know how many people are under it,” Beebe said.
The rough terrain likely kept some campers from reaching safety, said Tabitha Clarke, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock: “Some parts of the valley are so steep and craggy that the only way out is to hike downstream. Any hikers who had taken cars to the campsites would have been blocked at low-water bridge crossings that are inundated when the rivers rise.”
Rowe said that the Arkansas State Police told them that only a single person was unaccounted for. By 10 AM on Monday, word came to have all teams take a break, because a dog team had alerted and the handler was very confident and soon thereafter, all teams returned to base. “Right after that it, officials determined that the need for our sort of team was over, and that meant the need for ham operators was at an end,” he said. “The repeater was returned to normal use.”
Rowe described the conditions in the search area as “awful. The heat index was above 100 degrees F every day. Debris piles and downed trees were everywhere. One pile was about 200 feet long by 30 feet high. Vehicles were strewn over more than two miles of the river. Snakes and bugs had not taken any time off. It was also a very emotional thing, as each of us put ourselves in the position of the victims’ families. Three searchers had to be rescued due to heat stress.”
Davis explained that on Sunday, a search team member became ill and need to be extracted from a remote location where communications were difficult on any frequency other than the HCSAR repeater: “Ken Carpenter, KC5JTA, and his team hiked into the steep heavily wooded area on the river, located the patient and coordinated the extraction through the SARCOM communications center. The rescue entailed dragging a flat-bottom forestry boat upriver to the area and getting the patient to a point where they could be turned over safely to the medical team.”
Rowe thanked everyone involved: “If I start thanking folks I will miss someone, and I don’t want that. So forgive me. Howard County Search and Rescue performed admirably, just by doing what they do. I want to commend them for their foresight in putting that repeater in the right location years ago. The Northwest Arkansas Task Force arrived ready to go. The guys from Bowie County in Texas had some great computer skills. The list goes on and on -- all were absolutely committed and all were helping their neighbors. That’s why I do ham radio, so I can help my neighbor.”