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A convenience store is flooded in Glenwood, Ark., after the raging Caddo and Little Missouri rivers tore through parkland in southwestern Arkansas early Friday. ((Glenwood Herald, Michael G. Fox/Associated Press))

Floodwaters that rose as swiftly as 2 1/2 metres an hour tore through a campground packed with vacationing families early Friday, carrying away tents and overturning RVs as campers slept. At least 16 people were killed, and dozens more were missing and feared dead.

Heavy rains caused the normally quiet Caddo and Little Missouri rivers to climb out of their banks during the night. Around dawn, floodwaters barrelled into the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a 54-unit campground in the Ouachita National Forest that was packed with vacationing families.

The raging torrent poured through the valley with such force that it peeled asphalt off roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the riverbanks were severely damaged. Mobile homes lay on their sides.

Two dozen people were hospitalized. Authorities rescued 60 others.

After the water receded, anguished relatives pleaded with emergency workers for help finding more than 40 missing loved ones.

At one point, Gov. Mike Beebe said the death toll had climbed to 20. But Beebe's office later revised that figure to 16, saying the governor had relied on an erroneous figure after talking to an emergency worker at the scene.

Still authorities agreed the toll could easily rise.

Forecasters warned of the approaching danger during the night, but campers could easily have missed the advisories because the area is isolated.

The governor said damage at the campground was comparable to that caused by a strong tornado. The force of the water carried one body 13 kilometres downstream.

Authorities prepared for a long effort to find other corpses that may have been washed away.

"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 heavily wooded region offers a mix of campgrounds, hunting grounds and private homes. Wilderness buffs can stay at sites with modern facilities or hike and camp off the beaten path.

Denise Gaines 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.

After the cabin filled with chest-deep water, the group clung to a tree and each other outside for more than an hour. But then the water dropped quickly.

As the water receded, the devastation emerged: Cars were piled atop each other, and bodies were in the water. The group sought shelter in a nearby cabin that was higher off the ground. They were eventually rescued in a jeep.

Forest Service spokesman John Nichols said it would have been impossible to warn everyone the flood was coming. The area has spotty cellphone service and no sirens.

Brigette Williams, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Little Rock, estimated that up to 300 people were in the area about 120 kilometres west of Little Rock when the floods swept through.

The rough terrain likely kept some campers from reaching safety, according to 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, she said.