KRYMSK, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin launched an investigation into floods that killed 150 people and drove thousands from their homes in southern Russia at the weekend, hoping to stem criticism of the authorities’ handling of the disaster.
Putin, who was criticised for reacting slowly to disasters when he first took power, quickly visited Krymsk - the worst-hit town - on Saturday and promised compensation for victims the day after water rose above head-height in some houses and turned streets into raging torrents.
Even so his trip came under fire on social media sites for drawing attention from the victims, and residents complained they had been caught unawares when the torrential rain struck without warning from local officials on Friday night.
Some suggested the water came with such force that the gates of a local reservoir may have been opened.
“We were lying there asleep when the water came out of nowhere at 2 a.m., and right away it was knee-deep,” said Vitaly Berezhnoi, a 35-year-old cement worker, as he tried to salvage what he could from his home in the town of 57,000 nestling in the wooded mountains of the Krasnodar region.
“We barely managed to pull the children out. The dogs drowned. All our documents were lost - the car registration, work records, my army draft card.” [ID:nL6E8I839X]
Residents remained without power, gas or drinking water on Sunday night, and the Health Ministry, fearing infection from a cemetery eroded by floodwaters, had begun vaccinating people.
Witnesses said a seven-metre wall of water had smashed through the town, killing 139 people. Utility poles toppled by the floodwaters lay near a crumpled transformer in the centre of Krymsk and a drowned dog lay by a fallen walnut tree.
In the centre of town, the emergencies ministry had set up a tent camp to house people flooded out of their homes - as many as 12,000 people throughout the affected coastal areas.
Many residents believed they were the victims of a sudden release of water from the nearby Neberdzhayevskoe reservoir, possibly a deliberate one to spare a more populous city such as Gelendzhik, a resort town right on the Black Sea coast.
Investigators and local officials rejected this possibility but pensioner Yelena Chuboreva spoke for many when she said: “We have had rain before ... This is not because of rain.”
Transport in the relatively rich agricultural region near the Black Sea was gradually returning to normal on Sunday. Most passenger rail traffic resumed and Russia’s biggest port, Novorossiisk, a major outlet for crude oil from the world’s largest producer, resumed normal operations, a spokesman said.
Novorossiisk is also a major outlet for wheat from Russia, the world’s second largest exporter this past year. An official said Novorossiisk Grain Terminal was ready to resume exports, though none were scheduled for Sunday.
Putin declared Monday a day of mourning for the dead, most of whom drowned. Many were elderly people who had been sleeping when water swept through their homes after two months’ average rainfall fell in a night.
The official death toll stood at 150 although Interfax news agency said in an unconfirmed report that the number of dead had risen to 170. The vast majority were killed in or around Krymsk.
Putin grilled officials in Krymsk about whether gates at the nearby reservoir had been open.
“I have asked the leadership of the (federal) Investigative Committee to come down,” Putin told them. “The Investigative Committee will check the actions of all the authorities - how notice was given, how it could have been given, how it should have been given and who acted in what way.”
Putin, hoping to minimise public criticism, acted swiftly to show he was on top of the rescue effort.
On Saturday, Putin and the regional governor surveyed the flood zone from a helicopter and bumped over a country road in a minibus with the head of the Krymsk district, discussing the disaster response in the town worst hit by the flooding.
But in a sign that he may not be able to escape criticism over the floods, social media contained criticism of the state media coverage which focused as much on his visit to Krymsk as on the human suffering caused by the floods.
“The news on Channel One: The floods happened, Putin arrives in Krymsk, Putin flies in a helicopter, Putin arrives somewhere else, Putin has a meeting. Putin...,” said a tweet by a Russian identified only as Dalia Roshina.
It was the first major disaster in Russia since Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term as president after a four-year interlude as prime minister.
The former KGB spy, now 59, has increasingly struggled to project his customary image of mastery since the outbreak of protests against his rule last December.
In his 12 years in power, as president and prime minister, Russia has been plagued by natural and man-made disasters that have laid bare a longstanding shortfall in investment and management of Russia’s transport and infrastructure.
These include deadly forest fires in 2010 and the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000 which killed 118 sailors and officers. Putin was accused of responding slowly to the Kursk disaster because attempts by foreign rescue teams to save the sailors were initially not allowed.
Writing by Melissa Akin and Timothy Heritage; editing by Philippa Fletcher