KRYMSK, Russia – Russia's president moved quickly to address anger over the deaths of at least 171 people in severe flooding in the Black Sea region that turned streets into swirling muddy rivers and inundated thousands of homes as many residents were sleeping.
Vladimir Putin, who was criticized in past years for a delayed or seemingly indifferent response to disasters, flew to the region in southern Russia committed to showing he was taking charge of the situation.
He ordered the head of Russia's investigative agency to establish whether enough had been done to warn people about the floods. Federal prosecutors also said they were investigating whether the population had been properly protected from "natural and technological catastrophes."
Russia has seen a series of natural and man-made disasters in recent years, many of them blamed on aging infrastructure or lax safety rules.
Torrential rains dropped up to a foot of water in less than 24 hours, which the state meteorological service said was five times the monthly average. The water rushed into the hard-hit town of Krymsk early Saturday with such speed and volume that residents said they suspected that water had been intentionally released from a reservoir in the mountains above. Local officials denied this, saying it was not technically possible to open the sluices.
Federal investigators, however, acknowledged Sunday that water had been released naturally from the reservoir, but they insisted it did not cause the flooding and the dam had not been breached. They said the problem was the heavy and sudden rainfall.
Krymsk received a total of 221 millimeters (almost nine inches) of rain overnight, but 50 millimeters (two inches) of that came in less than an hour late Friday, the meteorological service said.
Many residents remained unconvinced, however. During an outdoor meeting with the regional governor, who tried to persuade them that the reservoir was not the source of the flooding, residents shouted that they did not believe him and repeatedly interrupted him. The governor then agreed to allow five citizens and a journalist to fly over the dam in a helicopter.
Putin had already sent his emergencies minister on an inspection mission, a further indication of the concern over the condition of the reservoir. Vladimir Puchkov later reported that he had flown over the dam and seen no evidence of any damage.
Putin, however, did not meet with any residents affected by the floods, perhaps not willing to risk being the target of their anger.
Workers and volunteers scrambled to distribute food, drinking water and clean clothes throughout Krymsk, since much of the city of 57,000 was without electricity and potable water. As the flood waters receded, residents tried to remove mud from their homes and salvage possessions.
Even heavier rain fell in Gelendzhik, a popular seaside vacation spot about 200 kilometers (120 miles) up the coast from Sochi, where preparations are under way for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Novorossiisk, a major Black Sea port, also was affected.
The Interior Ministry said Sunday that 171 bodies had been recovered, 159 of them in and around Krymsk and 10 in Gelendzhik, including five who were electrocuted after a transformer fell into the water. The majority of the dead were elderly who were unable to escape the sudden deluge.
Residents of Krymsk described a wave of water that washed over the hoods of cars and inundated one-story homes. Some sought refuge on roofs and in trees.
Viktor Nikolyuchiny said he and his wife were roused by their daughter, who lives a block away.
"I came out and the water was already up to my waist," he was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying Sunday. "My wife has difficulty walking, and if not for our neighbor she would have drowned." He said they waited out the storm at the neighbor's home, which unlike theirs has a second story.
Putin arrived Saturday evening and viewed the damage from the air. Television footage of Krymsk shot from Putin's helicopter showed the city partially submerged in muddy water. The city stadium looked more like a lake.
Across the Krasnodar region, more than 5,000 homes were flooded.
Gov. Alexander Tkachev said during the meeting with Krymsk residents on Sunday that the first warnings of possible flooding came at 10 p.m. Friday, and the heaviest rainfall was from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday. Tkachev
"Do you think my dears ... that we could have warned each of you? With what forces? That's one. And two, would you have gotten up and left your homes," Tkachev said during the confrontation, which was shown on NTV television.
The city set off a siren at around 4:30 a.m., but the residents said they didn't hear it.
Lynn Berry reported from Moscow.