* Russian government blames local officials, one is fired
* Residents question official version of events
* Putin seeks answers, tries to stem criticism
By Andrey Kuzmin
KRYMSK, Russia, July 9 (Reuters) - The Russian government accused local authorities on Monday of mishandling floods that killed 171 people near the Black Sea, hoping to deflect public anger over the high death toll and devastation from President Vladimir Putin.
The head of the Krymsk district, which bore the brunt of the damage at the weekend when a wall of water flooded homes and streets, lost his job hours after Russia’s emergencies minister blamed officials on the ground for being slow to issue warnings.
Putin himself was shown on television in the Kremlin sternly demanding his subordinates report back to him by the end of the week on how the relief effort was going.
“We must help these families, help all the people who are in very difficult circumstances and have lost almost all their belongings,” said Putin, anxious to appear in control after being accused of reacting too slowly to national disasters when he first rose to power in 2000.
In Krymsk, a town of 57,000 between the regional capital Krasnodar and the large port of Novorossiisk, people complained they had been let down by their leaders as they buried the victims, many of whom were sleeping when the flooding began.
“The old man woke up, managed to get out of the house but the water carried him away. We found his body the next day without any clothes on,” said Igor Markozov, 52, as he buried his 92-year-old father Valentin.
Another victim, 82-year-old Anna Dudnik, survived floods a decade ago but the water then reached only up to her waist. This time it reached the ceiling of her home.
“Her cat lived with her and her dog was tied up. They drowned together. The flooding hadn’t been expected. There was no chance of survival,” said 81-year-old Melaniya Usenko, standing at her sister’s freshly dug grave.
Others salvaged what they could from their shattered homes and, two days after Putin flew in to view the damage and grill officials on their actions, postal workers went from house to house making initial $300 compensation payments.
Relatives had earlier lined up to identify bodies stored in a refrigerated truck behind a local hospital at the start of a national day of mourning. Clean-up crews destroyed rotting carcasses of livestock drowned in the floods.
Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov signalled that the blame would be directed at regional leaders - rather than national figures - because they had been slow to warn people when torrential rain started falling late on Friday.
“Mistakes were allowed by local leaders and various services,” Puchkov said in televised comments. “Not all the population was warned in time.”
The governor of the Krasnodar region later dismissed Vasily Krutko as head of the Krymsk district. He was the first official known to have lost his job over the floods.
Krymsk residents said the wall of water that swept through the mountain town was so high that the gates of a nearby reservoir must have been opened - a version denied by officials.
“Nothing is left. We are like tramps,” said Ovsen Torosyan, 30, as he scoured the wreckage of his home. “I bought all the furniture and electrical goods on credit and still have to finish paying for them but they have all gone.”
A woman wearing a dirty pink shirt and standing outside the muddied ruins of her home said: “We were barely able to get out of our house and started screaming down the street for help. But we weren’t able to save our things. We saw the water carry away the roof of our house.”
In nearby municipal buildings, survivors who had lost their belongings picked through heaps of clothing - donations from nearby cities. Outside, dozens of white tents were set up in a large camp for flood victims who had lost their homes.
Putin, a former KGB spy, now 59, has increasingly struggled to project his customary image of mastery since the outbreak of protests against him in 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 other infrastructure.
After the deaths of the crew of the crippled submarine Kursk in 2000, Putin conceded that continuing a summer holiday during that crisis had damaged the public’s opinion of his leadership.
Analysts and trade sources said they did not expect any impact on Russia’s grain and oilseed harvest, although damage to the roads and railways could delay new grain deliveries to port.
The floods followed more than a month of heavy rainfall in the prosperous southern “breadbasket” region of Krasnodar, where agriculture and tourism thrive.
Torrential rain, equivalent to a third of the annual average rainfall in some places, temporarily paralysed transport and briefly halted exports from the nearby docks at Novorossiisk on the Black Sea, Russia’s biggest commercial port.
Port operations resumed and the railway was operating normally again for passengers, but a railway spokesman said some freight traffic had been halted because of flood damage.
There was no report of damage around Sochi, where Russia will host the Winter Olympics in 19 months time. Sochi is about 250 km (160 miles) from Krymsk.