Earlier this month a flood in the Black Sea region of Krymsk struck in the middle of the night killing close to 200 people. Nearly a foot of rain fell in the mountains and a 20 foot tall wall of water rose in the cities in 15 minutes. Yesterday, Krymsk’s mayor, its district leader and the local emergency services chief were taken into custody for failing to warn the victims. I include background on the issue and some discussion at the end.
A Russian Federation government report on reliefweb.int gives extensive facts and figures of the disaster and response (e.g. “Emergency psychological aid has been provided in… 11,351 cases”) but vivid narratives can be found in the New York Times:
“Lyudmila Dmitriyevna, 64, said she awoke early Saturday to the sound of voices, stepping onto her third-floor balcony and peering into the gloom.
“It was as if I were looking at a stream of clay,” she said. “It was so loud, there were people screaming in the water, and metal barrels, and animals. It boiled and boiled, it covered the streets and the yards, it was all you could see.”
Like many residents interviewed, she said she suspected that the raging flow was a result of an official decision to release some water from a swollen reservoir in the hills above the city — a theory rebutted by scientists from Russia’s environmental monitoring service, who said Friday’s rains swelled nearby rivers with the equivalent of six months’ average precipitation.
But those explanations, like the overtures of officials, have done little to win back Ms. Dmitriyevna’s trust. “Putin came, Tkachev came, the mayor came,” she said. “They deny everything. They are protecting their own interests. Why would they protect ordinary people?”
Her husband then took her by the hand and pulled her away from a reporter, saying that if she gave her full name, “they’ll take you out and shoot you.”
The Times also reported:
Survivors erupted in angry shouts when they learned, during a conversation with Gov. Aleksandr Tkachev, that officials received warning of the danger three hours before the wave hit, but had made no attempt to evacuate sleeping residents.
At the time, Mr. Tkachev — an ally of President Vladimir V. Putin — responded sarcastically to the notion that officials should have taken any action, addressing the hecklers as “my dears.”
“What, are you saying we should have gone to everyone?” he said as he struggled to be heard over the angry responses, according to video of the meeting. “That’s impossible. First of all, with what resources? Secondly, what would you have done — just stood up and left your houses?”
The frustration of the residents comes through in quotes from The Guardian:
"No one told us anything," said one woman standing at the city administration building, who asked not to be named. "Our officials say the dam had nothing to do with it, but everyone here knows otherwise."
A spokesman for the prosecutor general's investigative committee said the reservoir was not involved in the intense flooding. Local prosecutors earlier admitted the gates had been opened, but it was too early to say if that caused the flooding. Nearby towns were untouched….
Many if the dead were elderly. Loskutova described how she saved her 76-year-old mother: "I was screaming, 'Mama mama!' The water came in so fast and hard, we could barely break through the windows. I prayed and screamed for her not to let go."
The two women climbed on top of furniture where they stood until the water almost reached the ceiling, then finally they climbed through broken windows and on to the roof, she said.
"Then I sat with her, wet and naked, for 12 hours on the roof." No emergencies officials came, Loskutova said, and eventually her son arrived with a boat and ferried them to a hospital. "Are we not people?" she asked.
The International Herald Tribune has a good analysis of conspiracies around the idea that the reservoir purposefully released water to flood the town. Here is the text of a social media post fueling one of these theories
“Everyone is keeping quiet about this now, but last night my father was working and he says that they called an emergency meeting in the middle of the night to decide whether to open the floodgates of the Neberdzhaevskoye Reservoir,” Andropova wrote. “And what do you think? Of course they decided to open the floodgates! They sacrificed Krymsk and still didn’t manage to prevent the flooding of Novorossiysk. Good job. But at least they should have warned people the water was coming! Why didn’t they send the police ahead with warnings? Why didn’t they turn on the sirens so people would wake up? Now the stores are closed, we have no electricity or food. Krymsk is surrounded by troops, though there is no longer a Krymsk to speak of — just ruins. Many old people died. My friend’s parents have disappeared: they weren’t home when the rescue crews came, but they haven’t been found in the morgue either.”
Russian media has been contending that the reservoir couldn’t have caused the flood:
The dam of this reservoir is… located on the opposite side of Krymsk. Moreover, the emergency discharge of the reservoir is of a glory-hole spillway design which excludes the discharge of any considerable quantity of water.
The local authorities have reported that there was a discharge of water from the reservoirs, but whether they could have contributed to the flood in any considerable manner is a question that remains to be answered. However, the likelihood these reservoirs were in fact sources for the hundreds of thousands of tons of water that flooded Krymsk remains highly questionable on purely technical grounds.
The basin, located deep in the mountains, may have secured the town from total immersion, it appears. Waters levels in the reservoir jumped from 3 million to 8 million cubic meters overnight, so the storage worked as a “safety bag” for the city, securing it from an even worse flood, the Neberdzhaevsky press service says.
Moreover, “Krymsk was flooded much earlier than the reservoir started draining excessive water,” the press service told RIA Novosti. On Sunday the Investigative Committee confirmed that it does not consider a water discharge from the Neberdzhaevsky reservoir as the primary cause of the deluge…Local authorities insist that the true reason for the flood was the record level of precipitation in the region.
Anger was originally directed at the national government but Russian state media has deflected that back to the regional level:
The regional emergency services reported that local authorities had received weather warnings two days before the disaster. They also say the Emergencies Ministry sent out weather warnings by text message through mobile operators.
Pravda goes so far to say that provocateurs are deliberately spreading false information to undermine support for Putin:
Any cataclysm causes a great deal of rumors and the most controversial speculation. For example, victims of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988 sincerely believed that right before the shocks a silver plane appeared in the sky and something was dropped from it. This is a simple property of the human psyche - to try to explain blind violence of nature by human actions and find the cause that triggered the cataclysm. You cannot flog the ocean for drowning the ship.
The events in and around Krymsk go far beyond the standard reactions of shocked people to a disaster…Today, despite all rebuttals, despite the fact that an independent group from Krymsk has circled Neverdjayevskaya dam reservoir on an airplane, the attempts to fully refute the belief of the people that a wave was directed at them intentionally, have failed. People started talking about other reservoirs in the region from which the water could go to town. They began to look for other causes of flooding, understanding that the "Novorossiysk" theory had failed. Other theories included "drained water from the site of Grushevka Rosneft", "tried to save Putin's dacha in Praskoveevka," etc.
…On July 9 unidentified vehicles in the streets were announcing to the local residents that the second wave of floods was coming. Allegedly, the dam at the reservoir Neverdjayevskaya broke down and another multi-meter wave of water was approaching the city.
These "warnings" have generated a serious panic in the city, people rushed to the roofs of the houses, traffic jams emerged on the exits from Krymsk. Local authorities tried to calm the citizens down for hours, let the police cars on the streets urging people not to give in to provocations, explained that there was no second wave and the reservoir was fine.
Provocateurs were not found. In a dilapidated, panic-ridden city, the search and identification of criminals has become a real problem. However, the mere appearance of such "warning vehicles" is remarkable. It means only one thing - there is an organized group of provocateurs in Krymsk seeking to undermine the situation, politicize the disaster, and direct anger and frustration of people in the direction advantageous for the manipulators.
The Moscow Times puts a finer point on it (my emphasis added):
This is a well-known psychological phenomenon and very bad news for the authorities. It is common for victims of natural disasters to believe that they were victims of an evil plot of some sort. The famine of 1317 was blamed on Jews, and the black plague epidemic of 1347 was blamed on Jews and witches, who were subsequently burned at the stake.
This is bad news for the authorities because the people of Krymsk do not blame their troubles on Jews, witches, U.S. State Department, foreign agents or anti-government protesters. These once-steadfast supporters of Putin place the blame squarely on the Russian government.
The Christian Science Monitor also calls this a “familiar pattern”:
"There is a by now familiar pattern that repeats itself every time there's an accident," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "People blame officials, often with good reason, for failing to protect them. Central authorities look for someone on the local level to attach the fault to, and local officials squirm and lie to evade responsibility."
Is it true that victims of natural disasters often believe they were victims of an evil plot? The theme of “Flooded residents direct anger at reservoir operators” was one that I heard commonly this year, such as during the Queensland Floods and in the Manila Typhoons. I heard stories in the Philippines of citizens believing a dam was flooding their city, an idea easily refuted by looking on a map and noticing that the dam was over in the next valley and had no control over the local rivers.
Compare this headline “In terrorist attack, Putin destroyed whole town in Caucasus to save his Black Sea palace” with this story from Bangkok a few months ago “The king refused his palace to be protected from the flood, arguing that the water would just go around it, and it wouldn’t do any good to anybody else. No wonder they like the king here. But there is resentment in the outer provinces of Bangkok, about the suspicion that their neighbourhoods were sacrificed in order to save central Bangkok.” (read more about politics and floods in the US, Bangkok and Jakarta).
“We shouldn’t be making up crimes where there were none,” Shultz added. “Especially since there are plenty of specific and true reasons to be mad at the regime.”
To a Russian, both versions of events are believable — except that a story imputing malice to the authorities is probably more plausible than a sudden natural disaster. We Russians no longer believe anyone who addresses us in the public sphere: the president, the television, the newspapers, the police or bloggers we don’t know personally.
Thus in addition to the tragedy of the people who died in Krymsk, there’s the tragedy of having no hope of ever knowing what really happened to them.
UPDATE: A new theory emerges…Is this also a part of the “familiar pattern”, that a scientist armed with data (measured from outer space, no less) would waltz into a messy and contentious politicized issue? From the financial times:
Lev Denisov, head of the Laboratory of Remote Sensing at the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has another theory which many experts say offers a more probable explanation. The flood’s force, he said, was caused by water being channelled through small openings in a raised highway south of the city.
Using photographs taken from the International Space Station, his team pieced together the path of the flood waters, which he said built up behind a 7m-high road embankment south of the town, as well as a raised railway, by late evening on July 6. The waters were held back by logjams of debris which temporarily clogged eight narrow bridge openings.
“When the pressure became too high, the debris clogs burst, unleashing this wall of water,” Mr Denisov told the FT.
He pointed out that the height of the wall of flood water was roughly similar to the height of the highway embankment – 7m – and dismissed the theory that the floods were caused intentionally….
Suren Gazaryan, an ecologist based in southern Russia who was one of the early champions of the artificial cause theory, announced last week on his blog that he had changed his mind. “I came to the conclusion that discharge of water from the Neberdzhaisk reservoir could not be a major cause of the flood, although residents [of Krymsk] adhere to this version,” he said. He said on twitter on Saturday that the highway construction was “an obvious reason” for the floods.