More than 150 people are now known to have died in the worst floods to hit Russia in a generation, with the official response to the tragedy becoming heavily politicised even before the waters had fully receded. President Vladimir Putin flew to the region on Saturday to coordinate the rescue efforts, while opposition politicians accused authorities of criminal neglect.
This evening the Russian Interior Ministry said that 152 people had died in the flooding in the Black Sea region of Krasnodar, with the vast majority coming in one town, Krymsk, where huge rivers of water swept through the streets in the early hours of Saturday morning, after several inches of rain fell in one 24-hour period. People scrambled up trees or onto rooftops to escape the rising waters, with waves up to seven metres high reported. As the worst of the flooding came deep in the night, many were unable to flee in time.
Hundreds of houses were damaged and around 30,000 people were left without power today, as the waters also caused havoc with road and rail infrastructure, and briefly paralysed the port of Novorossiysk, one of Russia’s biggest.
Mr Putin was extensively featured on state television coordinating the rescue effort. News images featured the president wearing a black shirt and a concerned expression flying over the area in a helicopter, and later demanding information from local officials on whether enough warning was given to residents.
There was both grief and fury in Krymsk, as many local residents accused local authorities of not giving them warning of the floodwaters. Rumours have spread that authorities released water from a local reservoir to stop it from overflowing, but did not warn residents in time. “Of course this tragedy could have been prevented,” one tearful resident told an online Russian television station. “They don’t care about us. They didn’t warn us. Nobody came to save us.”
The opposition movement seized upon the public anger to attack local Kremlin-appointed leaders. Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said that he had reliable information suggesting that water had indeed been released from the reservoir. Regional governor Alexander Tkachev wrote on his Twitter feed that this was “nonsense” but today the Emergencies Ministry admitted that there had been water released from the reservoir. However, officials said they were not considering this as a possible cause of the floods.
MPs from the opposition Just Russia party called for Mr Tkachev to resign, and said that authorities should have done a better job of evacuating residents as the severity of the storm became apparent. A number of opposition politicians flew into the region today, both to offer help and support but also to make a political point, in a sign of how polarised Russia’s political climate has become.
Facing the first major crisis since he returned to the Kremlin in May, Mr Putin is perhaps mindful of the scorn poured on him back in 2000 when he faced the first disaster of his initial presidential term, the Kursk submarine disaster. Then, he was criticised for not breaking his holiday and flying to the scene. Twelve years on, Mr Putin is a very different politician, and as he continues to face a sustained street protest movement, he was clearly determined to show that he is in control of the rescue effort.
“The Investigative Committee will check the actions of all the authorities,” said Mr Putin. “How notice was given, how it could have been given, how it should have been given and who acted in what way.”
Today has been declared a day of mourning across the region.