KRYMSK, Russia (Reuters) - Russia’s emergencies minister accused local officials on Monday of not doing enough to prevent 171 deaths in weekend floods that raised new doubts about the country’s readiness for natural disasters under President Vladimir Putin.
Putin declared a day of national mourning on Monday and relatives were preparing to bury their dead in Krymsk, the southern mountain town that was worst hit by floods that caught many of the victims unawares as they slept on Friday night.
Refrigerated trucks held the discolored bodies of some of the victims behind a hospital in Krymsk, where survivors gathered to identify the last of the dead.
Postmen in the badly damaged town of 57,000 people went from house to house, handing out sums of 10,000 roubles ($300), with the promise of more compensation to come. Many people were salvaging what they could from their sodden homes.
“Nothing is left. We are like tramps,” said Ovsen Torosyan, 30. “I bought all the furniture and electrical goods on credit and still have to finish paying for them but they have all gone.”
Putin, who was criticized for responding too slowly to national disasters early in his first spell as president, quickly flew to Krymsk on Saturday to show he was in control and ordered an inquiry into the high death toll.
Some residents say the wall of water that swept through Krymsk was so high that the gates of a nearby reservoir must have been opened.
Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov has dismissed these suggestions but he said mistakes were made in failing to ensure residents were warned quickly enough. A criminal investigation has been launched.
“According to a preliminary appraisal, warnings were made but unfortunately not all the work was carried out properly. Mistakes were allowed by local leaders and various services,” he said in televised comments.
“Not all the population was warned in time,” he said.
Residents said the floods upended trees and drowned livestock, lifting the carcasses and carrying them on the waters rushing through city streets. Officials said they were collecting animal corpses and destroying them to prevent disease from spreading in the aftermath of the floods.
“We were barely able to get out of our house and started screaming down the street for help. But we weren’t able to save our things. We saw the water carry away the roof of our house,” said one woman wearing a dirty pink shirt standing outside of the muddied ruins of her home.
In nearby municipal buildings, survivors who had lost their belongings picked through heaps of clothing - donations from nearby cities. Outside dozens of white tents were set up in a large camp for flood victims who had lost their homes.
Analysts and trade sources said they did not expect any impact on Russia’s grain and oilseed harvest, although damage to the roads and railways could delay new grain deliveries to port.
The floods followed more than a month of heavy rainfall in the relatively wealthy southern “breadbasket” region of Krasnodar, where agriculture and tourism thrive.
Officials, who raised the death toll to 171 late on Sunday, were expecting more rains in the Krasnodar region on Monday although it was sunny and hot in Krymsk.
Torrential rain, equivalent to a third of the annual average rainfall in some places, temporarily paralyzed transport and briefly halted exports from the port of Novorossiisk, Russia’s biggest commercial port.
The port was returning to normal operations, and the railway was operating normally again for passengers, but a railway spokesman said some freight traffic had been halted because of flood damage.
It was the first major disaster in Russia since Putin 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.
Social media contained criticism of the state media coverage which focused as much on Putin’s visit to Krymsk as on the human suffering caused by the floods.
“The news on Channel One: The floods happened, Putin arrives in Krymsk, Putin flies in a helicopter, Putin arrives somewhere else, Putin has a meeting. Putin...,” said a tweet by a Russian identified only as Dalia Roshina.
On Saturday, the president grilled local authorities about residents’ complaints that they were not warned of the impending disaster and fears that water had flooded down from the nearby Neberdzhayevskoye reservoir.
The local officials rejected that notion, but a Reuters cameraman said that from a helicopter signs were visible that a large amount of water had escaped from the reservoir and a pipe was refilling the body of water. ($1 = 32.8387 Russian roubles)
Writing by Melissa Akin and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Peter Graff