KRYMSK, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin has ordered an investigation into accusations that officials could have done more to prevent floods killing at least 150 people in southern Russia, hoping to limit the criticism that has followed earlier disasters.
Putin moved quickly to visit Krymsk - the worst-hit town - on Saturday and promised compensation for victims the day after water rose above head-height in some houses and turned streets into raging torrents.
On Sunday, residents tried to salvage what they could from the ruins of their homes in Krymsk, a town of 57,000 nestling in the wooded mountains of the Krasnodar region on the Black Sea which has thriving agriculture and tourism industries.
“We were lying there asleep when the water came out of nowhere at 2 a.m., and right away it was knee-deep,” said Vitaly Berezhnoi, a cement worker who turned 35 on Sunday.
“We barely managed to pull the children out. The dogs drowned. All our documents were lost - the car registration, work records, my army draft card.”
Residents remained without power, gas or drinking water almost 48 hours after the torrential rain struck on Friday night and the Health Ministry, fearing infection from a cemetery eroded by floodwaters, had begun vaccinating residents.
Utility poles toppled by the floodwaters lay about near a crumpled transformer in the center of the town.
Most passenger rail traffic resumed in the region on Sunday and Russia’s biggest port, Novorossiisk, a major outlet for crude oil from the world’s largest producer, resumed normal operations, an official at the port operator said.
Novorossiisk is also a major outlet for wheat from Russia, the world’s second largest exporter this past year. The official said Novorossiisk Grain Terminal was ready to resume exports, though none were scheduled for Sunday.
Putin declared Monday a day of mourning for the dead, most of whom drowned. Many were elderly people caught unawares as they slept when water swept through their homes after two months’ average rainfall fell in a night.
The official death toll stood at 150 although Interfax news agency said in an unconfirmed report that the number of dead had risen to 170. The vast majority were killed in or around Krymsk.
Putin grilled officials in Krymsk about whether a local reservoir had broken. Residents suggested it had done so because of the size of the waves that swept through the town.
“This is not just because of rain,” Berezhnoi’s neighbor, Yelena Chuboreva, a pensioner, said.
Officials dismissed the allegations at a meeting with Putin shown on state television throughout Sunday. A spokesman for Russia’s Investigative Committee said it was not looking at a release of water from the reservoir as a cause of the flooding.
“I have asked the leadership of the (federal) Investigative Committee to come down,” Putin told officials in Krymsk.
“The Investigative Committee will check the actions of all the authorities - how notice was given, how it could have been given, how it should have been given and who acted in what way.”
Putin, hoping to minimize public criticism, acted swiftly to show he was on top of the rescue effort.
On Saturday, Putin and the regional governor surveyed the flood zone from a helicopter and bumped over a country road in a minibus with the head of the Krymsk district, discussing the disaster response in the town worst hit by the flooding.
A criminal investigation was opened into whether the deaths were caused by negligence, Russian media reported.
It was the first major disaster in Russia since he returned to the Kremlin for a third term as president after a four-year interlude as prime minister.
The former KGB spy, now 59, has increasingly struggled to project his customary image of mastery since the outbreak of protests against his rule last December.
In his 12 years in power, as president and prime minister, Russia has been plagued by natural and man-made disasters that have laid bare a longstanding shortfall in investment and management of Russia’s transport and infrastructure.
These include deadly forest fires in 2010 and the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000 which killed 118 sailors and officers. Putin was accused of responding slowly to the Kursk disaster because attempts by foreign rescue teams to save the sailors were initially not allowed.
Writing by Melissa Akin; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Philippa Fletcher