Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Russian Floods- An unnecessary tragedy

It is hot, and the room is crowded. Around the walls sit eight or so police officers behind desks, sweating as they shuffle papers. In front of them a stream of people move to sit, hunched over forms, trying to work out what to write in the heat and the noise.

It is July 2012, and these people are documenting the destruction of their lives.

On the night of Friday the 6th of July, about 1am, a surge of water swept into the town of Krymsk in southern Russia’s Krasnodar region, near the Black Sea coast. The next few hours were filled with terror for the residents of the town. Witness after witness described, not a steady rise but a wave of water spilling down streets and into houses. It reached up to the tops of first story windows, in some places much more, up to 7 metres high. It tore up paving slabs and traffic lights on the streets, lifted people from their beds up to their ceilings, flipped over cars and vans and strew debris through people’s gardens and homes.

By the time the waters receded on Saturday afternoon the true extent of the tragedy was apparent. Many houses in the town are built chiefly of wood. They collapsed completely under the weight of the water, soaking, smashing or carrying away everything they had inside. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands were damaged leaving thousands of people homeless. One lady, Lyudmila, told me of her ordeal-

“The water came up to the windows and the house started to fall apart. I dashed outside and, fighting to hold onto the fence, dragged myself along it until I reached a neighbour’s house with a fence tall and strong enough. I hauled myself on top of it and sat their all night as the flood water surged around me. I was terrified I was going to fall in as I would certainly have drowned.”

When she returned Lyudmila realised everything was destroyed. Outside in her yard her cooker, washing machine and TV were covered in the layer of mud which lay on the streets and floors all around. The roof was on the ground with the walls collapsed outwards. Her furniture had been smashed to pieces. All she had managed to salvage were half a dozen pots and pans.

Lyudmila Haralampidi's house collapsed around her. She only just escaped.

This was Lyudmila's living room.

This was her kitchen.

Everyone else, wherever I went among the lower lying parts of the town faced the same situation. One old lady came up to me looking completely bewildered. “Where can I find some food or some shelter?” she asked. She didn’t seem to hear the answer. Fighting back her tears she just said, “The water came within 2 hours. How many years is it going to take me to rebuild my house?”

But the most terrible losses weren’t belongings or homes. As of writing nearly 200 people died in the floods, mostly in Krymsk but also in nearby areas. Most of them were very old or young, too weak to escape when they awoke to the rising waters in the middle of the night. The terror of those terrible hours was etched on people’s faces. The force of the water meant front doors couldn’t be opened. No open spaces could be crossed without being swept away. One old lady, Ekaterina, spoke of waking to the sound of her dog’s crazed barking-

“He was tied up and as the waters rose he knew he was going to drown. As I put my foot over the edge of the bed I was knee deep in water. I have two dogs and six cats. I clawed at the dog’s rope, I don’t know how I managed to undo the knot. The cats were all on top of the wardrobe. I snatched them down and started getting them all up to roof. The water was rising so fast, up to my shoulders. I managed to get up there with them too. Only my chickens I couldn’t save.”

Ekaterina was lucky. Emergency workers were sifting through the wreckage of collapsed houses, picking out bodies. In the first day after the floods many bodies were left in the streets under blankets until authorities figured out what to do with them. The bodies of animals and livestock also lay about.

Bodies were loaded into ambulances which kept coming in convoy for the funerals.

Krymsk was left without gas, electricity, fresh water or landline telephone connection. There was hardly any food to be found. So where were the authorities? You would have expected people in Krymsk to be in despair, in shock, in confusion. They were certainly hungry, thirsty and exhausted. But the chief emotion that stood out more than any other was anger.

People queuing for food at one of the distribution centres. They were hot, tired, exhausted and angry.

Firstly they were angry about the lack of warning. The local authorities later mumbled something about a TV ticker announcement or some other half hearted attempts. People were asleep. They knew nothing of the oncoming waters. What later emerged was that the authorities had known about the surge of water a whole three hours before it reached Krymsk. When challenged by the townspeople, Krasnodar regional governor Alexander Tkachev lashed out at them, shouting, “What were we supposed to do? Go door to door!” No wonder people were so enraged.

Secondly people were angry at the slow response of the emergency services. With no food and water, and no way of getting any, people were in a desperate situation in the day or so after the flood arrived. Apart from a command centre there seemed hardly enough emergency workers out on the streets helping people. By the third day after the flood the operation had seemed to gain more momentum. People were grateful for the help they got, but it took too long to come they said, at the time when it was needed most.

A local church gathering and sending out food for people as fast as they could.

An emergencies ministry camp. People said they were grateful for the help in cleaning up when they did arrived, but that should have been a lot sooner.

Thirdly nobody that I spoke to believed the official line about what caused the flood. Officials said that it was just a natural freak after more than a month’s rain fell in just a few hours. It is true the region’s hydrology means some flooding here happens every year, but not like this, not with 7 metre waves with the water coming in and then flowing away so fast. Locals thought the Neberdzhayevskoe reservoir and its dam upstream opened its sluice gates. That could have been, they said, to protect bigger towns like the popular holiday resort Gelendzhik or the port of Novorossiisk. Local authorities deny that, with a variety of confused announcements from ‘the sluices did open but they wouldn’t release enough water to create a flood’ to ‘no sluices were opened, it was an emergency overflow system’ to ‘the reservoir had no sluices and released no water’ ending up in just ‘we rule this possibility out’. Nobody I spoke to was having any of it.

People were sceptical about other things too. Many believed there were far more dead than the official death toll of 171. Others told me that disaster money, 10,000 roubles (£200), was only being handed out if locals signed documents saying that they had been given a warning. That, even though there had already been an official admission, and a district chief had been fired, for the lack of warning. Even though it wasn’t possible to corroborate these stories the overwhelming sense is that nobody believed the authorities had done enough, and their anger was palpable.

Bodies were being kept in these refrigerated lorries. There was no space anywhere else.

A van with pictures of people's faces, bloated by hours under water, to try and identify them.

To see the true physical cost of the Krymsk flood I travelled to the town’s mortuary. There the bodies were being kept in refrigerated supermarket lorries because there was no refrigerated space inside. It was a disturbing sight, but must have been more so for the distraught relatives waiting outside. One by one the bodies were carried out of the back of the lorries, past pictures of bloated human faces used to try and identify the dead, and loaded into coffins. Tractors were hastily digging extra graves at the town’s cemetery.

The police room where people were coming to register all the things, or people, they had lost.

For the emotional cost I only needed to talk to one of the grieving. People who had a missing relative or who wanted to report someone dead also came to that same hot, stressful and claustrophobic police room. Sitting in an office above were Natalia Nesteryenko and Oksana Gorbunova. Quietly and solemnly they told their parts of the tale.

When the flood waters came Oksana’s husband, police officer Vyacheslav Gorbunov jumped straight into his car and drove to the lower part of the town. When the waters rose too high he abandoned the car and went on foot. He picked up some children in the darkness and the surging water and took them to safety. One was Natalia’s ten year old daughter Tatiana. She was terrified about the fate of her daughter but didn’t know who had saved her. When she asked Tatiana who had rescued her she replied that it was a ,”Mr policeman,” but didn’t remember his name. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she thanked Oksana. “Without your husband’s help my daughter and all those kids would have died.”

Vyacheslav’s body was found some hours later. He had been overcome by the force of the water.

His widow Oksana cried too. But she was calm and, as she said, she knew he would never have acted any other way, “he wouldn’t just pass someone by who was in trouble. It was in his nature.”

Clothes were being donated from across other towns and cities. Food and supplies were being given out and debris cleared by volunteers, mostly from local towns. Friends, families and neighbours were starting to try and rebuild their homes and their lives. People have been promised around 170,000 roubles (£3300) to help rebuild their houses in the long run. There will be an inquiry into how and why it happened and there will be memorials to the great flood of 2012. But people here will keep asking one simple question. Why did all these sacrifices, all this death, all this destruction have to happen in the first place.


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