OBRAC Serbia (Reuters) - Pavle Pavlovic never heard the flood siren at 5 a.m. on Friday, May 16, when the waters of the nearby Kolubara River had already entered the Serbian town of Obrenovac.
The 37-year-old power plant worker woke three hours later to find his street submerged. Like thousands of others, he was trapped.
“There was no warning that our neighborhood could be flooded,” Pavlovic said days later at a Belgrade sports hall that had become his temporary home. “Luckily we had some water and a loaf of bread in the apartment.” Rescue boats reached his part of town two days later.
Now Serbians and Bosnians are asking why so little was done to protect lives and defend homes when meteorologists had given several days’ notice of torrential rain in an area notoriously prone to flooding.
They are also asking why online content critical of the government’s response to the floods has disappeared.
At least 40 people died in Obrenovac after the skies dumped several months worth of rain on the Balkans in a few days. The toll has climbed to 65 in total in Serbia and Bosnia.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development estimates the damage in Serbia at up to 2 billion euros ($2.73 billion), or seven percent of national output, and 1.3 billion euros in Bosnia, or 10 percent of output.
As the waters retreat, a wave of solidarity has given way to questions about the readiness and response of authorities to the heaviest rainfall in the region in over a century.
Meteorologists had warned on the previous Monday of the threat posed by Cyclone Tamara and the rapidly rising river waters that have regularly inundated Obrenovac over the past century. Yet there was no order to evacuate.
When the waters overwhelmed sandbag defenses in the early hours of Friday, only one of several sirens in the town actually worked, authorities admit. Most evacuees Reuters interviewed say they never heard it. Private boats were first to the rescue.
“Firemen and policemen approached and I could see in their eyes there was very little they could do,” Stevan Mesarovic, whose mountain rescue group was among the first to respond, wrote on his website. “They had no boats and there were more and more calls for help.”
Ivan Karic, a Green Party MP and environmentalist from Obrenovac, told the Serbian parliament: “The citizens of Obrenovac want to know who is responsible for the terrible things that have happened.”
Stung by the criticism, the Serbian government under Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist who turned pro-Western six years ago, has rounded on the local authorities and the blogosphere. Police last week questioned Obrenovac mayor Miroslav Cuckovic, while at least three Facebook users have been detained on accusations of “spreading panic” by speculating online about the number of victims.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) spoke last week of a “worrying trend of online censorship”.
Vucic, in a letter to the OSCE, challenged the rights group to produce evidence that his government was behind the censorship, and demanded an apology.
Obrenovac, a town of at least 30,000 southwest of Belgrade, sits in a valley between three rivers and is no stranger to flooding. This time, insurance companies were concerned enough to send SMS messages to their clients about the threat.
But as the Kolubara burst its banks, people say they were largely taken by surprise by the force of the wave. Some were trapped on balconies and rooftops. At least two died in a car. The emergency services were short of boats.
Having taken his pregnant wife and father to safety, 26-year-old Srdjan Popovic returned to help rescue others on Friday night. “The worst was the cries of children in the darkness,” Popovic said. “People were calling for help, asking for food, but there was no response.”
“We were saving people on our own. It was chaos.”
The government declared a state of emergency on Friday. Residents were still being evacuated on Monday.
“If the local authorities had reacted earlier ... a lot of people would have been evacuated,” Predrag Maric, who heads the police emergency situations department, told Reuters. He said a ‘civil defense’ network - phased out after the wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990s and only recently reincarnated - was still short of hundreds of members and protective clothing.
But Cuckovic, the Obrenovac mayor, told state television he had no information about how big the floods would be and so could not order the evacuation.
The waters made a lake of the Kolubara surface coal mine that feeds Obrenovac’s Nikola Tesla power plant, Serbia’s biggest. Officials say it could take a year to fully restore production, meaning Serbia will have to rely on costly imports.
The cash-strapped government will have to foot the bill, given that neither the power plant nor the mine had been insured against flooding since 2012.
As for upgrading flood defenses, “nothing has been done for the past 25 years,” said Professor Ratko Ristic of the Belgrade Forestry Faculty. “People dump garbage in rivers, canals are not cleaned properly and there’s been no afforestation.”
Bosnia’s own rescue efforts were complicated by a postwar system of government that divvied up power between ethnic Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks. An investigation in Bosnia’s Dani magazine revealed that much of the budget money allocated to flood prevention had been spent elsewhere.
Serbia’s government has promised answers. But 65-year-old Slavujka Subara has taken little comfort. Subara’s first home in the Bosnian town of Gorazde was swept away by war in the 1990s and she fled to Obrenovac. Now her second home has also gone.
“The hardest thing is losing the photographs,” she said, sitting on a mattress in the Belgrade sports hall. “My husband passed away two years ago. I’ll have to ask relatives for at least one photo of him.” ($1 = 0.7328 Euros)
Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo; Editing by Matt Robinson/Ruth Pitchford