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.
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.
In a particularly damaging televised moment, the governor of the southern Krasnodar region, Alexander Tkatchev, answered reporters' questions about the lack of warning by saying, "do you expect us to go door to door [warning people] in the short time available? With what resources would we do that?"
Deflecting blame proves difficult
For Putin, who faces a tougher political environment as he embarks on his third term of office, there is a risk that his usual method of hurrying to a disaster scene, promising to punish guilty officials and handing out state largess might not work this time, some experts say.
"When you see this outpouring of popular distrust toward the authorities, which is all over the Internet today, you have to bear in mind that there is a folk memory in this country of how officials have lied, exaggerated, and covered up the truth in so many previous disasters," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a political scientist and frequent Kremlin critic.
"In the past Putin has proven himself a master of handling these situations. He has a classic fast, man-in-charge response that usually deflects blame from himself and the central authorities," says Mr. Piontkovsky.
"But that may not be the case here. For one thing, he's too close to the Krasnodar governor, Tkatchev, whom he depends upon to make everything ready in [nearby] Sochi for the upcoming 2014 Olympics. Tkatchev is overseeing the construction of palaces near the Black Sea for Putin, and another for the Patriarch, and that makes him indispensible to Putin. For another, people are more aware now. There's a pro-democracy protest movement growing in Russia, and people are less likely to let things go this time," he adds.
Another element of the usual pattern, which may receive greater scrutiny this time, is for authorities to loudly pledge to fix the underlying problems that led to the accident, and then forget their promises once the scandal has died down.
A classic example is the wildfire that swept across Russia two summers ago, during which Putin personally was seen on TV taking the controls of a water bomber to douse the flames. At the height of that crisis, hundreds of bone-dry peat bogs ringing Moscow – which had been drained by the Soviets – were blazing, casting a toxic cloud of smog over the capital city. Following that crisis, which left even residents of the Kremlin choking, stern pledges were made to step up forest protection and treat the peat bogs to prevent any recurrence.
"The problem was serious then, and it's the same now. Little has been done," says Nikolai Shmatkov, coordinator of forest policy for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Russia.
"With global warming we can expect more droughts and fires," a likelihood the Kremlin acknowledged in the wake of the 2010 wildfires, he says.
"Yet the promises of officials remain just words until something practical gets done. I'll be the first to applaud when that happens."