Russia yesterday held a day of mourning for the at least 171 people who died in its worst flooding disaster as questions mounted over whether officials did enough to warn of the impending calamity.
Flags flew at half-mast over the Kremlin and other official buildings and entertainment programs were shelved as Russians asked how so many people lost their lives and property in the catastrophe in the southern Krasnodar region.
More than 25,000 people lost belongings in the flooding, which overwhelmed the town of Krymsk after torrential rains and also caused significant damage in the neighboring cities of Gelendzhik and Novorossiisk.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev canceled a planned meeting over Russia’s hosting of the Olympics in 2014 — in the city of Sochi in a different area of the Krasnodar region — to review the disaster, official media said.
The embattled local governor described the floods as a “great surprise,” but both pro-government and opposition newspapers showed rare unanimity in saying the authorities had badly failed to provide locals with sufficient warning.
“The tragedy of Krymsk was a perfect demonstration of what slovenliness and hoping against hope brings about,” the pro-Kremlin Izvestia daily said in a scathing assessment of the official reaction.
The Vedomosti daily said that flooding in the Krasnodar region was in no way a novelty and authorities were well aware of the risk, particularly after deadly floods in the summer of 2002 that also hit Krymsk.
“The catastrophe shows up the inability of the authorities to protect the population from natural disasters,” the opposition-inclined economic newspaper said.
“People were not evacuated and were not warned about the threat,” it said.
The staunchly pro-government Komosmolskaya Pravda asked simply in a stark headline over a picture of the Krymsk devastation: “Why so many dead?”
It said that residents had received warnings about the severe weather through SMS messages and also information on the news ticker of local TV.
“But, as the inhabitants of Krymsk say, most people knew nothing about this,” it said.
The Moskovskiy Komsomolets newspaper said tersely: “The Krymsk catastrophe could have been foreseen and averted.
However, Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachev described the flood as a “great surprise” and claimed that nothing could have been done to avert it.
“This is the same kind of catastrophe as an earthquake. What can be done? Man here can do nothing against this, he has no chance,” he told Izvestia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing the most severe crisis since he returned to the Kremlin in May, ordered an inquiry to explain the massive death toll after viewing the disaster area from a helicopter.
The force of the water was so ferocious that many residents said they suspected the floods were caused by a release of water at a local reservoir on the Neberdzhai River.
Putin, wearing a black shirt, was shown on television at the weekend grilling officials about whether an emergency release of water was possible.
“Where did the water come from?” Putin asked government officials in televised remarks.
Tkachev swiftly replied: “It was raining.”
The day of mourning also remembers 14 Russian pilgrims who were killed when their bus overturned in Ukraine on Saturday.
The dark weekend for Russia recalled other summertime catastrophes such as deadly wildfires in 2010.