Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Incomprehensible Arkansas Flash Flood Deaths

Nineteen people are known dead and at least one is still missing from a flash flood that hit a remote Arkansas campground last week.  The Missouri river flooded in the middle of the night, meaning that many of the campers did not get word of the flood warnings until it was too late.  Reports indicate there were 4 feet of water at the campsite at 2 AM and more than 23 feet by 5 AM.  Bodies have been found as far as 8 miles away.  The reason no one is absolutely certain how many are missing is that no one is absolutely certain who was camping there when the floods came, and many folks are still on camping trips and can't be reached. 

Today, about twenty members of families of the dead and missing were brought to the campsite to see for themselves where this happened, and to look through the debris for personal items belonging to their loved ones.  The damage is horrific.  The water literally peeled up paved roads and sent campers floating down the river.  Everything that was in its path and couldn't move out of the way is moved or destroyed.

I have always found flash floods difficult to wrap my mind around.  I grew up in a hilly part of New England where the nearest rivers flooded, but didn't come anywhere near my house.  When flooding was really bad the river behind my uncle's house would swell through his backyard and into his basement, and local roads would close.  Flash floods, however, were not something I was familiar with.  The terrain where I lived was not conducive to large amounts of water pouring into the rivers and streams all at once, causing the water to rise by feet at a time.  If you went to bed dry, you would wake up dry -- that's how the world worked.

I think even to those of us who live (as I do now) where flash flooding does happen, we still generally believe that to be true.  Floods happen, sure.  But they come with warning and time to get away.  Flooding that comes fast and furious is the stuff of broken levees, not of campgrounds on hillsides.  In our connected world, we expect that, with the exception of earthquakes, natural disasters have some warning.  If bad stuff is coming, we will know.

Nineteen people, including at least 6 children, went camping last week, one presumes for fun, and are not coming home.  They were in their campers or trailers or tents, and the water came faster than they could run.  No one went camping last week thinking they were going to die.  Even the most nervous among us think the dangers of camping involve bears and wolves, or maybe the bogey man hiding in the bushes.  If we imagined that you could drown in your sleep while camping, no one would ever go.  This isn't supposed to happen.  It's incomprehensible.

image:  Reuters


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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