Unexpected Floods Displace Hundreds In Russia

Robert Siegel talks to Miriam Elder of The Guardian about floods in Russia that local officials say have killed more than 170 people.

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MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. There were heavy rains recently in Southern Russia and this past weekend, in the town of Krymsk, more than 170 people lost their lives, hundreds more lost their homes and thousands their belongings when flood waters rose over 10 feet.

The survivors are angry. The government says it issued warnings of the impending disaster, but residents say they did not receive those warnings. On Monday, the Emergency Situations Ministry admitted that adequate warning measures had not been taken and the head of the region was dismissed.

Well, Miriam Elder is Moscow correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. She's been covering this story. And tell us, first, five days after the flood, what's the state of rescue operations there?

MIRIAM ELDER: The focus right now is still on recovering bodies, but mainly also on cleaning up homes and businesses on the ground.

SIEGEL: Now, I gather that people there - some people there, at least, claim that officials actually caused the flood by opening the gates of a local mountain reservoir. What is the theory behind that allegation and what does the government say about it?

Well, what happened is, because there's a huge mistrust of government on the ground right now, all these conspiracy theories have popped up, the main one being that authorities opened the flood gates purposefully to flood the town of Krymsk in order to save the nearby port of Novorossiysk, which is Russia's main port.

ELDER: And what the government is saying is that that particularly didn't happen, but they're now going to investigate whether there was any strange activity with the flood gates.

SIEGEL: Is it a mistrust of local officials or does it extend to regional and national officials, as well?

ELDER: What's interesting about this disaster is that it's the first time that I've seen in Russia blame go up to the very top. So whereas Vladimir Putin, the president, is normally seen as this national hero and savior, there's a lot of anger on the ground against him, as well as the regional officials.

SIEGEL: What has he said in response to that anger?

ELDER: He hasn't responded to the anger directly, but he has ordered officials to carry out a full investigation, particularly into why people weren't warned about the potential danger.

SIEGEL: And this idea of how people would have been warned, what is the system? How would officials warn people in Krymsk that there could be a flood?

ELDER: Well, for example, they could put those sort of tickers at the bottom of TV screens and they say that that was done, however, the electricity had been shut off by 11:00 p.m. They could have sent text messages out. They could have gone through the streets and shouted it from loudspeakers. But absolutely nothing was done.

SIEGEL: And how do people there regard Russia's track record, generally, in coping with disasters, not necessarily in notifying people, but in coming in and doing relief efforts once they've happened?

ELDER: Well, unfortunately, Russia has a very rich record of tragedies and disasters. In terms of the rescue effort and the cleanup effort, people just take what they can get, but what's interesting this time is that you've had a lot of civil activism, so a lot of volunteers coming from Moscow, St. Petersburg, cities all over Russia to fill in the gaps that have appeared in the government's efforts.

SIEGEL: Is it being covered aggressively and is word of what's happening there, does it seem to be getting out to Russians all over the country?

ELDER: It depends if you're talking about state media or if you're talking about the Internet. It's definitely the number one topic on blogs, on state-run media. Of course, it focuses on the reaction of the government in general and on Putin in particular.

SIEGEL: Miriam Elder, thank you very much for talking with us.

ELDER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Miriam Elder, a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, speaking with us from Moscow.

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