Russia’s opposition has hit out at the authorities over their handling of deadly floods in a Black Sea region at the weekend.
Officials say at least 171 people died and over 5,000 houses were submerged when torrential floods hit the Krasnodar region on the night of July 7-8. Many of the dead were elderly people or handicapped. Seventeen people were ruled missing as of Monday afternoon.
“This is a direct consequence of the thieving policies carried out by the swindlers and thieves in recent years,” anti-Putin protest leader Sergei Udaltsov told supporters in Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg on Sunday evening, referring to the opposition nickname for the ruling United Russia party.
“Nothing is invested in infrastructure, everything is being stolen,” he added, in footage posted on YouTube. Udaltsov was detained shortly afterwards and charged with failure to obey police as he made his way to an authorized protest.
President Vladimir Putin – who faced criticism over his handling of disasters in the 2000s - flew over the devastated region on Saturday, in footage aired on state-run television. The flooding is the first major catastrophe to strike Russia since Putin returned to the presidency in May.
“People were not warned about the powerful floods and their evacuation was not undertaken,” Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said on the party’s website. He also said “negligence” on the part of the authorities was to blame for the deaths of so many people.
A criminal investigation has been opened into the deaths.
Lawmakers from the opposition Just Russia party have called for the dismissal of the long-serving Krasnodar region governor Alexander Tkachyov over the disaster.
And Russia’s emergency minister admitted on Monday that an early warning system that could have given residents valuable time to flee had failed to operate.
“Mistakes were made by local authorities and certain departments,” Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov told a meeting on the floods. “Not all the population was warned in time.”
His comments were immediately contradicted by the head of the emergencies services in Krymsk, the worst affected town. Denis Pronin told RIA Novosti that residents were warned via sirens, mobile phone text messages and police. “We did all we could,” he said.
He was echoed by officials at the Federal Meteorological Service, who said on Monday that they warned local emergency services about possible flooding some five hours before the disaster struck.
But local residents said no warning was given.
“One of the causes of the catastrophe was the lack of a warning system,” Krymsk resident Boris Khovstikov told RIA Novosti. “The civil defense and warning system failed to function.”
Puchkov also dismissed rumors that water from a local reservoir had contributed to the flooding. Russia’s Investigation Committee has said water overflowed from the reservoir, but did not contribute to the disaster.
The committee also said on Monday that disaster warning systems were not functioning properly, but said an investigation was in progress.
The regional branch of the Emergencies Ministry issued five storm warnings since July 5, including by text messages, branch head Alexander Kazilikin told RIA Novosti. Kommersant reported on Monday that many local residents never got the messages or received them in truncated form.
A number of opposition politicians and activists have flown into the region to help with the rescue effort. But Communist Party activists said on Sunday that they were not permitted to enter Krymsk.
“Some were even threatened – they were told ‘get out of here or we will arrest you as looters,’” activists said in a Twitter microblog.
Krymsk Mayor Vladimir Ulanovsky and head of the surrounding Krymsk district, Vasily Krutko, were suspended from their jobs by governor Tkachyov over the disaster.
President Putin ordered an analysis of what took place during the floods to be presented to him by the end of the week.
“We need to analyze the reasons for this occurrence - how the services worked, not just the warning system, but also the hydro-technical equipment - so as to prevent such a thing happening again in other places,” Putin said at a Monday meeting on the disaster in the Kuban region.
The region was hit by the worst rains since 1935, which apparently accounts for the flooding, the Federal Meteorological Service said.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday that the federal government would allot some 3.8 billion rubles ($115.5 million) on compensation to victims and cleanup in the region.
An oil spill covering some 300 square meters of water occurred near Novorossiisk, a major shipping port, following the disaster, but was cleaned up by Monday afternoon, local prosecutors said.
Russia marks a day of mourning on Monday in connection with the floods.