Muscovites have reacted with outrage over authorities' preparations for a deadly storm that tore through the Russian capital on May 29, claiming a system of mobile-phone alerts failed them as the perilous weather conditions bore down on the city.
Scores of social-media users said that Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry, known by the acronym MChS, did not notify them via their mobile operators about the storm.
State television called it the deadliest and most destructive storm to hit Moscow in a century, with officials saying on May 30 that at least 16 people were killed and more than 100 others injured. Several people reportedly died after being struck by falling trees and structures dislodged by powerful winds.
Several social-media users noted that they frequently receive text messages from emergency services about relatively benign weather.
"Why is it that when there’s beautiful weather in the city, or a harmless drizzle, I receive a thoughtful SMS alert from MChS about an orange danger level," one Moscow resident wrote on Facebook, referring to emergency services’ second-highest danger classification, "but when a storm outside rips a tree up from its roots, there’s nothing but silence?"
Another Moscow-based Facebook user said she was outside when the storm hit and that she felt like a protagonist from the Hollywood sci-fi franchise The Matrix, "dodging meter-long chunks of tree bark torn off by the wind."
"And I have a question: Where were the beloved SMS alerts from MChS? Did anyone hear about the approaching storm?" she asked.
Liberal opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov wrote on Twitter on May 30: "There was no SMS alert about the storm. People died and were injured. An MChS failure."
Amid the wave of criticism, Russian emergency-services officials defended their efforts to inform Muscovites of the pending danger.
A spokesman for Moscow's emergency services was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying that the SMS warning was distributed to Russia’s three main mobile operators: MTS, Beeline, and MegaFon.
All three were cited in Russian news reports as saying that the warnings were distributed to their clients, though the Latvia-based, Russian-language news site Meduza quoted MegaFon and MTS as saying that the distribution is based on the geographical parameters spelled out by emergency services.
Several Russian social-media users posted screenshots of text messages they received from emergency services warning them of strong winds and urging them to exercise caution.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the federal Emergencies Ministry drew fire for an interview he gave to Meduza in which he said authorities’ warning efforts were sufficient.
The spokesman, Aleksei Vagutovich, was quoted by Meduza as saying that an SMS-alert campaign was organized, as well as television and radio announcements about orange-level danger warnings.
"The information is given out -- whoever wants it will get it," Meduza quoted Vagutovich as saying. "And if you can’t read, what can I do for you?"
Authorities’ response was also the subject of a critical investigation by the Kremlin-friendly sensationalistic news site Life.ru, which wrote that an "organizational muddle" had kept many Muscovites in the dark about the approaching storm.
"Many people weren’t warned about the danger, and for that reason ended up under fallen trees, flying advertising signs, and rain torrents," Life.ru wrote.
The popular Russian news site Gazeta.ru wrote on May 30 that "it’s not exactly clear" how authorities decided which mobile users to warn based on their geographical location.
"For example, the Gazeta.ru office, which is located less than a kilometer from the Danilovskoye Cemetery, where a falling tree injured a man and a child, did not receive any messages from MChS," it said in its report.
Russia’s powerful federal Investigative Committee said in a May 29 statement that agency head Aleksandr Bastrykin had ordered his subordinates to conduct a "comprehensive" probe of the circumstances of the death and damage wrought by the storm.