(Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered investigators to find out if enough was done to prevent 150 people being killed in floods in southern Russia after flying to the region to deal with the first big disaster of his new presidency.
Putin, who was criticised for his slow reaction to disasters earlier in his career, said after visiting the flood zone late on Saturday that money would be put aside for building new homes for victims of the worst flooding in decades in Krasnodar, a relatively rich region with agriculture and tourism industries.
An Interior Ministry crisis centre said 144 people had been killed in the flooding after two months’ average rainfall fell in a few hours on Friday night. Most of the dead were drowned, many of them elderly people caught unawares as they slept.
Police said survivors climbed into trees and onto roofs to stay above the waters, which flooded entire ground floors of some buildings and created driving torrents in some streets.
Rains continued in some coastal areas on Sunday, including the hardest hit town, Krymsk, where 139 people had been found dead out of a total toll of 150, Russian newswires reported.
The sun was shining and the waters had receded from the resort town of Gelendzhik, on the Black Sea coast, where nine people died. The town had appeared badly flooded in aerial photographs taken on Saturday.
Emergencies Ministry aircraft were taking off from Gelendzhik airport, the nearest regional airport to Krymsk.
Rail traffic resumed on Sunday after being suspended on Saturday and a spokesman at the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, the main outlet for wheat from the world’s second largest exporter and an important loading port for crude oil as well, said crude loadings would restart on Sunday.
The spokesman did not say when grain exports would resume. Power was still being restored to parts of the port, he said. Almost 30,000 homes were also without electricity and gas, emergency officials said.
The consequences of the flash flood could be more lasting for Putin, though he moved swiftly on Saturday to show he was on top of the rescue effort.
Putin and the regional governor surveyed the flood zone from a helicopter and bumped over a country road in a minibus with the head of the Krymsk district, discussing the disaster response in the town worst hit by the flooding.
“I have asked the leadership of the (federal) Investigative Committee to come down. The Investigative Committee will check the actions of all the authorities – how notice was given, how it could have been given, how it should have been given and who acted in what way,” Putin told a meeting in Krymsk.
“I ask you to cooperate,” he said.
It was the first major disaster in Russia since he 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, both 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.
These include deadly forest fires in 2010 and the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000 which killed 118 sailors and officers. Putin was accused of responding slowly to the Kursk disaster because attempts by foreign rescue teams to save the sailors were initially not allowed.
Putin on Saturday ordered the Emergencies Ministry to check a reservoir near Krymsk. The state water resource agency has rejected suggestions by residents that a release of water from a nearby reservoir was responsible for the severe flooding in Krymsk.
The flooding followed a month of rain which worsened on Friday night but was expected to stop on Monday. It damaged thousands of homes, forcing survivors to take shelter in tent camps set up outside Krymsk by emergency services teams.
The Interfax news agency reported the road from Novorossiisk to the popular nearby Black Sea resort of Gelendzhik was being cleared, but that transport, including rail traffic, had largely collapsed in the region.
Two people were detained in the Krymsk area for looting, it said.
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Russia’s Putin seeks answers over deadly floods