* Investigators ordered to check emergency warning systems
* Residents blame reservoir, Putin grills officials
* Flood is first natural disaster of new Putin presidency
By Andrey Kuzmin
KRYMSK, Russia, July 8 President Vladimir Putin
launched an investigation into floods that killed 150 people and
drove thousands from their homes in southern Russia at the
weekend, hoping to stem criticism of the authorities' handling
of the disaster.
Putin, who was criticised for reacting slowly to disasters
when he first took power, quickly visited Krymsk - the worst-hit
town - on Saturday and promised compensation for victims the day
after water rose above head-height in some houses and turned
streets into raging torrents.
Even so his trip came under fire on social media sites for
drawing attention from the victims, and residents complained
they had been caught unawares when the torrential rain struck
without warning from local officials on Friday night.
Some suggested the water came with such force that the gates
of a local reservoir may have been opened.
"We were lying there asleep when the water came out of
nowhere at 2 a.m., and right away it was knee-deep," said Vitaly
Berezhnoi, a 35-year-old cement worker, as he tried to salvage
what he could from his home in the town of 57,000 nestling in
the wooded mountains of the Krasnodar region.
"We barely managed to pull the children out. The dogs
drowned. All our documents were lost - the car registration,
work records, my army draft card."
Residents remained without power, gas or drinking water on
Sunday night, and the Health Ministry, fearing infection from a
cemetery eroded by floodwaters, had begun vaccinating people.
Witnesses said a seven-metre wall of water had smashed
through the town, killing 139 people. Utility poles toppled by
the floodwaters lay near a crumpled transformer in the centre of
Krymsk and a drowned dog lay by a fallen walnut tree.
In the centre of town, the emergencies ministry had set up a
tent camp to house people flooded out of their homes - as many
as 12,000 people throughout the affected coastal areas.
Many residents believed they were the victims of a sudden
release of water from the nearby Neberdzhayevskoe reservoir,
possibly a deliberate one to spare a more populous city such as
Gelendzhik, a resort town right on the Black Sea coast.
Investigators and local officials rejected this possibility
but pensioner Yelena Chuboreva spoke for many when she said: "We
have had rain before ... This is not because of rain."
PORT AND TRANSPORT RESUME WORK
Transport in the relatively rich agricultural region near
the Black Sea was gradually returning to normal on Sunday. Most
passenger rail traffic resumed and Russia's biggest port,
Novorossiisk, a major outlet for crude oil from the world's
largest producer, resumed normal operations, a spokesman said.
Novorossiisk is also a major outlet for wheat from Russia,
the world's second largest exporter this past year. An official
said Novorossiisk Grain Terminal was ready to resume exports,
though none were scheduled for Sunday.
Putin declared Monday a day of mourning for the dead, most
of whom drowned. Many were elderly people who had been sleeping
when water swept through their homes after two months' average
rainfall fell in a night.
The official death toll stood at 150 although Interfax news
agency said in an unconfirmed report that the number of dead had
risen to 170. The vast majority were killed in or around Krymsk.
Putin grilled officials in Krymsk about whether gates at the
nearby reservoir had been open.
"I have asked the leadership of the (federal) Investigative
Committee to come down," Putin told them. "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 FLIES INTO ACTION
Putin, hoping to minimise public criticism, acted swiftly to
show he was on top of the rescue effort.
On Saturday, 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.
But in a sign that he may not be able to escape criticism
over the floods, social media contained criticism of the state
media coverage which focused as much on his visit to Krymsk as
on the human suffering caused by the floods.
"The news on Channel One: The floods happened, Putin arrives
in Krymsk, Putin flies in a helicopter, Putin arrives somewhere
else, Putin has a meeting. Putin...," said a tweet by a Russian
identified only as Dalia Roshina.
It was the first major disaster in Russia since Putin
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, 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.