Poor Russian flood response spurs charges of negligence (+video)
As Russians mark an official day of mourning for the victims of the floods disaster, public officials scramble to deflect blame.
Russians marked an official day of mourning Monday for at least 171 people who died in weekend flash floods near the Black Sea. Flags flew at half-mast and President Vladimir Putin observed a televised minute of silence in the Kremlin.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Russian Floods
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But the political storm over alleged official negligence and general unpreparedness for disaster in an area that has experienced similar flooding in the past may just be the beginning.
The basic cause of the catastrophe was extraordinary rainfall: 11 inches, or five times the monthly average, poured down on the southern region on Saturday. It backed up in the hills just beyond the coast and squeezed into massive torrents in the narrow riverbed ravines. Experts say that's probably enough to explain the 20-foot-high "wall" of water that slammed into the town of Krymsk, which sits on the coastal plain not far from the Black Sea.
Scores of people died in their sleep, more than 5,000 buildings were smashed, and dozens of cars were swept away in the current. Flying over Krymsk later in the day, Mr. Putin said it looked "like a tsunami" had hit the place, according to the Russian media. Others died from destructive flood waters several miles away in the resort town of Gelenzhik and the port city of Novorossisk.
As is usual in Russian disasters, rumors, and public accusations of official malfeasance spread within hours. Putin – as he has done in every case since he (at first) failed to get personally engaged with the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk 12 years ago – immediately flew to the scene in take-charge mode, pledged material assistance, and ordered a criminal probe to be launched into the official response to the floods.
"There is a by now familiar pattern that repeats itself every time there's an accident," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "People blame officials, often with good reason, for failing to protect them. Central authorities look for someone on the local level to attach the fault to, and local officials squirm and lie to evade responsibility."
All of those pathologies are on full display in the aftermath of the Krymsk flood, experts say. Local people claim that authorities, who had several hours' notice of the floods, failed to warn residents of the danger. Some also claim that authorities carried out a routine opening of the sluice gates in a reservoir above Krymsk, despite the heavy rainfall, worsening the floods' impact.
"Officials knew about the floods and didn't adequately communicate that urgent information to the population," says Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko Party, who was reached on the scene in Krymsk by phone Monday. "People woke up already trapped by the waters, and many drowned. There is an attempt to make this look like simple carelessness, but many people think it's a case of criminal negligence."
In a report to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev Monday, the head of Russia's ministry of emergency services, Vladimir Puchkov, pointed the finger of blame at local officials. "An immediate assessment suggests that although citizens were warned, no ample work was done. Errors were made by local governments and individual services," he said.