HUNTSVILLE, Ark. — They were moving to a new house, a new life.
Damien Wiggins, a 4-year-old who loved superheroes. His baby sister, 18-month-old Krystal. And their mother, who amid the rain had loaded up her SUV with the children’s clothes to bring to her parents’ house.
She knew only one way to get there, and the route would take the family over a low-slung bridge along Glade Creek. That’s where the floodwaters hit them, flipping the SUV and tearing the children away from their mother.
The storms and tornadoes in recent days have left a trail of death and destruction across the South and Midwest, taking an especially deep toll on rural areas in the region, where many lower- and working-class communities are now struggling to right themselves.
As some towns were still trying to recover those missing Tuesday, many residents here were bracing for more rain and possible flooding ahead. Up to five inches of rain is likely in areas of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas that have already been hit hard. Many rivers are already in major stages of flood, and some have peaked at levels not seen in a century.
At least 20 have been killed across several states, but the stormy waters were deadliest in Arkansas, where six people have died in the past few days. Damien was one, his body discovered Monday as search teams scoured the riverbank.
His baby sister — still missing — is feared to be the state’s seventh casualty. Still looking for her, large teams of volunteers and law enforcement met at dawn Tuesday with quiet hugs and somber faces a few miles from the flooded river.
For many, hopes of finding Krystal alive have long waned, but this small community can’t yet mourn, residents said — not until she’s found.
“We need to bring them home,” said Steven Baker, uncle to the two children. Standing at the staging area where more than 200 volunteers and officials are coordinating the search, Baker’s cheeks were red with sunburn and his eyes baggy from lack of sleep. “I’m hoping today is the day we find Krystal,” he said, pointing to the sky. Authorities worry coming rains and possible flash floods could hamper the search.
Hundreds have been evacuated and dozens had to be rescued after being stranded in high water in parts of southern Missouri. Some had to be rescued from rooftops. Some Arkansas rivers have gotten so dangerously high that a levee protecting one town here might soon fail, said Steve Clarke, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Little Rock.
Experts say it is impossible to discern whether the recent spate of serious weather, particularly the tornadoes, is the result of climate change. John Allen, an assistant professor of meteorology at Central Michigan University, said the cause probably lies in regular climate fluctuations, specifically the changing temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico that can bring large amounts of rainfall to the states to its north.
Allen said tornadoes are not unusual for this time of year. Texas and Arkansas have been hit with multiple tornadoes, including one that hit east of Dallas that was a mile wide at one point and traveled 22 miles, said Jason Godwin, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.
“We’re sitting in one of the more active years in recent decades,” Allen said. “That being said, it only takes one tornado to cause devastation to a home or family.”
For poor, rural communities like those in northwest Arkansas, rebuilding after a severe storm is often a tempest itself. Those forced out of their homes can’t always return, and federal funds are not easy to secure, said Danielle Baussan, an energy and environmental expert at the Center for American Progress.
Residents in this northwest corner of Arkansas are accustomed to storms like the one that ravaged the area this past weekend. Often, particularly this time of the year, people have to drive through high water, crossing low, submerged bridges to reach their homes, Huntsville Mayor Darrell Trahan said.
That’s what Damien and Krystal’s mother was doing when her SUV got caught in the current Saturday.
After her vehicle stalled in the water, the mom called family members asking what she should do, said her sister, Tina Westlin. When she saw the water rising and realized how dire the situation had become, Westlin said, the mother gathered her two children in the back seat and tried to escape through an open window.
But the current overwhelmed them, said Westlin and other relatives.
“She had her arms wrapped around them, and the water just took them away,” she said.
Authorities said they are not publicly identifying the mother while the search is ongoing to give her space to grieve.
Rescuers found the mother soon after, about a mile downstream from the car. Her brother, Baker, said she refused to go to the hospital and stayed with search crews through the night Saturday. On Sunday, Baker said, his sister hiked alongside her family and 200 volunteers for almost six miles looking for her children.
“She’s been beating herself up pretty bad,” he said. “Everyone’s been trying to help her and trying to make sure she doesn’t blame herself. She did everything she could. It was an accident, a force of nature.”
Before searchers found Damien’s body Monday, some in the family remained hopeful, Baker said. “They were thinking maybe he was holed up in a barn with his sister, just holding onto any hope possible.”
The discovery brought sharp pain but also relief, he said: “It’s like half our mission is done.”
Baker and Westlin said their sister is a single mother who works in a warehouse in the area and has been raising the two children on her own for the past two years. The mother has a third, older daughter.
“We have yet to tell her daughter or my kids about what happened,” Westlin said. “I don’t know how to tell them. We’re going to wait until the search is done.”
Volunteers have turned up with horses, hunting dogs, ATVs and canoes. A farm crop sprayer from Illinois brought his helicopter. Police departments from neighboring counties have sent staff to help.
As he started talking about the outpouring of love he has seen from the community, Baker broke down. “To see all the support and love — it’s overwhelming,” he said. “We had people come from Texas, Omaha, Missouri. Friends we haven’t seen in years, they’re all out here searching with us.”
Volunteer Darline Knight, a home-health-care provider, said she drove in from Clifty, Ark., to join the search when she heard the news: “I came out to try to help find those babies. . . . If it was my kids, I’d want that closure.”
Madison County Sheriff Rick Evans, who is leading the recovery effort, said crews have had to search the same areas several times as the water recedes and yields new territory. Damien’s remains were found Monday in an area that was previously underwater.
Volunteers have fanned out along a five-mile stretch of the creek, which is now thick with flood debris — trees, branches, clothes and even small appliances. As evidence of the floodwater’s intensity, they also have found many of the items the mother had packed in her SUV spread across a wide area: the little girl’s clothes, a sippy cup, a teddy bear.
The small treasures have been a source of comfort for the family, Baker said. On Monday, amid the detritus, relatives found a piece of a coffee mug emblazoned with pictures of Damien and Krystal.
The mug had broken in such a way that the only thing still visible was the two children’s faces, smiling, together.
Phillips reported from Washington. Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.