Caught unawares: The night the Russian floods came

KRYMSK, Russia Tue Jul 10, 2012 4:33pm EDT

A boy walks on an uprooted tree in a street, hit by floods, in the town of Krymsk in Krasnodar region, southern Russia, July 8, 2012. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko

A boy walks on an uprooted tree in a street, hit by floods, in the town of Krymsk in Krasnodar region, southern Russia, July 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Eduard Korniyenko

KRYMSK, Russia (Reuters) - Aziza Azimova went to bed at the same time as usual on Friday, watched television for a while and then turned out the light, unconcerned about the rain teeming down outside.

The lamp had flickered a little and she got up to glance outside. Floods have been a hazard before in town. But no water was pooling in her garden and she went back to bed.

Azimova, 54, was totally unprepared for what happened next in Krymsk, a sprawling country town on the edge of the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia.

Woken by a loud noise in the middle of the night, she found water running in, not just under the door but also through the window of her small house on Sovietskaya Ulitsa - Soviet Street.

Moments later she was fighting for her life, lifted by the water up to the ceiling of her bedroom - and drowning.

A wall of water was crashing through the darkened town, carrying people and animals with it down broad, tree lined streets and leaving a trail of destruction in which 159 people were killed in the Krymsk district alone.

"The rain didn't seem unusual. There was no sign of the trouble ahead," said Azimova, sitting in tears on the pavement near her ruined home on Tuesday, her legs and hands bandaged and her body covered in cuts and bruises.

"I went to bed at about 10:30 and watched television. Nobody was saying anything about the rain, there were no emergency warnings."

Azimova, who had just slipped out of hospital to see what remained of her possessions, said she was woken by a "terrible noise". She closed the window and a bathroom door but could not prevent the water pouring in and rising above her in minutes.

"At first I didn't panic. I thought the water would recede. Then I started to panic. I climbed on to the cupboard, and I started to swim. The water reached the ceiling and I swallowed some of it," she said. "There was no air left.

"Then the cupboard fell over and smashed the window and I squeezed out through it into the street. I cut myself. The water was salty and full of petrol, and I swallowed a lot of it.

"Then my neighbors saw me and pulled me out by my hair."

Azimova was one of the lucky ones, but she doubts she will receive enough compensation from the state to carry out the repairs needed to live in her house again.

She is mystified by the speed of the disaster but also by why no one raised the alarm.

"We have a bell," she asked, referring to a local emergency warning system. "Why did no one ring it?"

WALL OF WATER

Sovietskaya Ulitsa suffered more damage than most parts of this prosperous town of 57,000, a centre for a district of fruit and vegetable growers in the Kuban region, whose wheat-growing plains are Russia's traditional "bread basket".

There was still about 30 cm (a foot) of water around Azimova's house on Tuesday and debris and rotting garbage were piled up on the pavement.

Residents said a wave up to seven meters (20 feet) high crashed through the town between 2 and 3 a.m. on Saturday, July 7, following a month of heavy rainfall.

Most of the victims were aged and were sleeping at the time. They drowned along with livestock and pets as two to three months rain fell in the space of a few hours, drenching the surrounding hills, swelling streams and swamping drains.

There were acts of bravery. A policeman, Vyacheslav Gorbunov, found a boat and used it to ferry two children to safety. As he was going back to their house to collect others from the family, a wave tipped the boat over. He drowned.

There was little that could be done for many people in Krymsk, nestled beneath the hills between Novorossiisk on the Black Sea and the inland regional capital of Krasnodar.

Igor Markozov, 52, recounted the fate of his 92-year-old father Valentin: "The old man woke up, managed to get out of the house. But the water carried him away.

"We found his body the next day without any clothes on."

Nine deaths were also reported in the seaside town of Gelendzhik, 40 km (25 miles) away. Five of these were electrocuted when a transformer fell into the water. Two others were swept out to sea elsewhere along the coast.

By daylight on Saturday, rumors were swirling about what could have caused such a large wave in Krymsk. Few believed it was caused by rain alone, and many said the sluice gates of the nearby Neberdzhayevskoe reservoir must have been opened.

Some went so far as to say this had been done deliberately to avert a risk to a more populous city, possibly Gelendzhik, the nearest big resort, or the grain and crude oil terminal at Novorossiisk, one of Russia's most important harbors.

"We have had rain before," said Yelena Chuboreva, a pensioner in Krymsk. "This is not because of rain."

Local authorities, investigators and the Emergencies Ministry in Moscow have ruled this out. But mistrust of officialdom and the ability of the authorities to protect people is now so great in Russia that the rumors refuse to go away.

FLYING VISIT

President Vladimir Putin, facing unprecedented public criticism among a growing and disgruntled urban middle class, has long counted on support from the common people of the provinces and was quick to show he understood their outrage.

Caught out before for responding too slowly to natural and man-made disasters, he was by Saturday evening aboard a helicopter inspecting the flood damage.

State television beamed pictures of the head of state grilling officials on the rescue work and asking whether enough had been done to warn people of the impending doom.

His flying visit, intended to show he was in control, impressed some in an area where some 300 homes were destroyed and a further 5,000 damaged.

Speaking of a promise from Putin of close to $5,000 in compensation for those like him whose houses or apartments were flooded, Ovsen Torosyan, 30, said: "If Putin hadn't come, the local administration wouldn't have lifted a finger.

"No one would have been promised anything."

Some locals complain that they have yet to see payments they had been offered after a heavy flood 10 years ago.

But Putin did not meet any of Torosyan's fellow survivors in person and his trip appeared to have little impact on many as they mourned the loss of relatives, homes and possessions.

The visit may, however, have helped deflect blame for the crisis, two months after his return to the Kremlin following four years as prime minister.

His aura of invincibility faded by seven months of protests, mostly in big cities, the 59-year-old former KGB spy can ill afford slip-ups that would further undermine his claim to all but unchallenged power and erode his support base in the provinces.

He has also learned a lesson. Twelve years ago, three months after he was first elected president, he remained on holiday by the Black Sea and said nothing for five days about a stricken nuclear submarine in the Arctic. After delayed rescue efforts, the 118 sailors aboard the Kursk were finally given up for dead.

Russian media accused Putin of doing too little, too late.

In his 12 years in power, both as president and prime minister, Russia - like the Soviet Union before it - has been plagued by disasters that follow years of low investment and poor management of Russia's transport and infrastructure.

This time the Russian government is ensuring the blame is put on local officials, who the emergencies minister said on Monday had made mistakes and failed to sound alarms properly.

The governor of the Krasnodar region has dismissed the head of Krymsk district. Senior Kremlin aides will report back to Putin on the handling of the crisis in days. More dismissals may follow.

SMALL COMFORT

That will offer little comfort to the people of Krymsk, who on Tuesday were continuing to bury their dead and looking for answers. Dozens of wooden crosses marked freshly dug graves.

Although rail traffic and work at the Novorossiisk terminal had started returning to normal by Sunday, and experts expect the flood to have little impact on Russia's grain harvest, the situation is still dire in Krymsk.

Many people are still trying to salvage what they can from their homes while clean-up crews destroy rotting carcasses of drowned livestock. In the centre of the town, dozens of white tents form a camp for flood victims who lost their homes.

Hygiene is a growing problem, and there is still no fresh water or cooking gas. People are being vaccinated against disease.

"We don't have enough hands. We need more people," said Nikolai Rigan, a 28-year-old volunteer, as he carried food, water and clothes sent from other Russian towns and cities.

Other volunteers unloaded blankets, tinned food, vegetables, pasta, baby strollers, clothes and shoes from trucks.

(Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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