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Rising Fury Over Russian Authorities' 'Negligence' As Floods Devastate South

A street in the city of Krymsk after it was hit by a deluge over the past weekend.
A street in the city of Krymsk after it was hit by a deluge over the past weekend.
Bright sunshine has started to dry away the muddy pools of water left by this past weekend's deadly flooding in southern Russia.

But it may be many months before public anger subsides over what many say was the government's mishandling of the catastrophe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered an investigation into the cause of the overnight floods on July 6-7 that killed more than 170 people in Krymsk and other cities.

Speaking on July 9, he appeared to accept explanations by local officials that the flood was the result of a natural disaster rather than negligence.

However, Putin suggested the issue was far from closed.

"According to preliminary data [the flood] was caused by natural phenomena," he said. "However, we should analyze thoroughly what [flood] warning services and hydroengineering facilities have and have not done, and what still needs to be done, not only at that site but also in other places where similar situations may occur."

SEE ALSO: Russian officials concede mistakes over handling of floods

Nonetheless, Putin -- who has repeatedly come under fire for what is seen as his imperious response to human catastrophes -- has spent no time on the ground in the affected areas, where relief efforts remain sluggish.

WATCH: Survivors in southern Russia recount events when floodwaters raged through their homes and complain that they got no official warning ahead of the tragedy:
Survivors In Southern Russia Recount Deadly Floods
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Much wrath has also been directed at the governor of Russia's Krasnodar territory, Aleksandr Tkachev, who has faced mounting criticism for his failure to warn residents of the impending flood.

Many residents in Krymsk, Gelendzhik, and other towns in the region were given little or no warning when heavy rains sent a wall of water rushing through city streets in the early hours of July 7.

Howls Of Protest

Speaking at a public gathering on July 8, Tkachev raised howls of protest when he announced that officials had known about the flood danger as early as 10 p.m. local time on the night of July 6 -- up to five hours before the flood struck.

Tkachev has already fired the mayor of Krymsk and the head of the district administration in response to the crisis.

But many expect that Tkachev's own career may be in peril, particularly as officials continue to face accusations that they deliberately opened the floodgates of a nearby reservoir in order to protect the larger and more influential city of Novorossiisk.

Local authorities have denied that the sluices on the Neberdzhanaevsky Reservoir were deliberately opened to reduce the pressure on the swelling structure.

They acknowledged, however, that the reservoir may have "naturally" released water from several points specially designed to help the structure self-regulate its water levels.

Several ecologists and hydrological experts contacted by RFE/RL's Russian Service dismissed the notion of authorities opening the reservoir to redirect the deluge away from Novorossiisk.

Yevgeny Chekalovsky, a hydrologist and a resident of Krasnodar's Kuban River basin region, said the heavy rainfall and the possibility of a strong local windstorm were far likelier explanations for the disaster in a region famously prone to flooding.

But he added that much of the region's once-efficient water-drainage system has fallen into disrepair since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and could be to blame for the ferocity of the flood.

"The reasons for the flood could be more than natural causes," he said. "In the 1960s, the Adagum River flooded over into the Kuban River and created a swamp that stretched over many square kilometers. It was pumped out, and they even started to grow rice in that spot.

"Unfortunately, all our hydrotechnical systems have not been used very competently over the past 20 years, to put it mildly," he adds.

"And if there was heavy flooding in the Adagum and its tributaries, then any clogging in the system could cause the water to quickly rise above ground level in Krymsk."

Olympic Preparations

Other experts have suggested that Krymsk, rather than being repaired, should be rebuilt in an entirely different location to take it out of the flood plain -- and with taller, sturdier buildings than the largely one-story adobe houses that crumbled in the water and left residents scrambling for rooftops.

But few residents in Krymsk appeared confident of such a coordinated government response, let alone the delivery of the compensation money that Putin has already promised for victims who lost relatives and property in the floods.

The disaster comes at an unfortunate time for Krasnodar officials, who are racing to prepare the nearby city of Sochi for the Winter Olympics in 2014.

Some experts have warned that the massive construction projects tied to the sporting event may further destabilize an ecologically delicate area and leave residents even more vulnerable to floods and other disasters.

Sergei Mitrokhin, the head of the opposition Yabloko party, says he believes government officials should be held liable for negligence leading to human deaths.

The roots of the problem, he says, are tied to a massive overhaul of Russia's State Standards, which has weakened the monitoring of technological and ecological safety guidelines.

The softening standards, Mitrokhin suggests, are to blame for a string of recent disasters that have befallen Russia.

Such disasters have included the 2009 accident at the Sayano-Shushenkskaya Hydroelectric Dam, the 2010 Raspadskaya mine disaster, and massive forest fires the same year.

"It was a sweeping change in our legislation on safety and technical standards," he says. "Many mechanisms that were designed to monitor our technical systems were abolished or drastically reduced.

"So the level of safety and competence of the people tasked with supervising safety standards has dropped sharply. This is the common cause of many accidents that have occurred in our country."

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lyudmila Vasina contributed to this report from Moscow

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