KRYMSK, Russia – The floods that washed through southern Russia and killed 171 people followed storms that dumped five months of rain in a matter of hours. Still, President Vladimir Putin has spent three days trying to persuade residents that the flooding was an act of nature and not the result of government negligence or worse.
Some persist in believing, against all evidence, that the city of Krymsk and its 57,000 people were intentionally sacrificed to prevent the flood waters from damaging Novorossiysk, a major Black Sea port essential for exporting Russian oil and grain.
This deep distrust of the government poses a challenge to Putin, who depends on the support of ordinary Russians across the country to counter the growing challenge in Moscow to his 12-year rule.
At the very least, the flooding has Russians once again questioning the government's ability to keep them safe. Still fresh in their memory are a string of disasters — from the bungled response to the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, to the wildfires that swept seemingly unopposed through a swath of western Russia in 2010, to the capsizing of an overloaded river boat that killed more than 120 people last year.
The Emergencies Ministry acknowledged Monday that it had failed to warn residents about the flash flood that turned Krymsk streets into swirling muddy rivers and filled one-story homes practically up to the ceiling in the middle of the night. Many of the 171 who died were elderly residents unable to escape in time.
A total of 29,000 people in Krymsk and the seaside resort town Gelendzhik lost all of their possessions, while about 300 homes in Krymsk and 100 in Gelendzhik were damaged beyond repair, according to government figures released Monday.
After torrential rains dropped up to 300 milliliters (12 inches) of water late Friday and early Saturday, the flooding inundated Krymsk so quickly that that residents said they suspected that water had been intentionally released from a reservoir in the mountains above the city to prevent the dam from being breached.
The suspicion was that this had been done to protect the Novorossiysk port, which is part-owned by the government and Transneft, the state monopoly that runs the oil pipeline system. The reservoir lies in mountains situated between Novorossiysk and Krymsk. It was unclear whether the port was in any danger.
The government denied the sluices had been opened and, in an effort to convince the skeptics, the Krasnodar region governor arranged for a group of residents to fly over the reservoir in a helicopter. He even arranged a second flight over a wider area after they complained that they had not seen enough the first time. Two members of the group were shown on television saying they were now convinced that the reservoir had not been the source of the flooding.
This was the same conclusion reached by a well-known local environmentalist, Suren Gazaryan, who has opposed the governor on other issues. Gazaryan studied the area around the reservoir and the high-water marks along a network of mountain streams, posting the photographs and his conclusions on his blog.
Still, prominent Moscow journalist Oleg Kashin, who was in Krymsk, said on Kommersant FM radio that none of the residents he had spoken to believed it was the weather alone that caused the flooding.
"It's not that the government's version of the events differs from that of the victims, but the thing is that it's normal in Russia to distrust authorities in everything — be it a natural disaster, elections or soccer," Kashin said. "I'm sure that Krymsk will get repaired, compensations will be paid and the dead will be buried. But you have to agree that this will not make this crisis of confidence go away."
Early in his presidency, Putin learned the hard way about the need to take charge quickly when disaster strikes.
After two explosions sank the Kursk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea on Aug. 12, 2000, Putin did not interrupt his vacation and the bewildered navy command hesitated for hours before launching a search. What little time was left for 23 sailors who had managed to flee to a rear compartment was wasted, and by the time Russia finally accepted help from Norwegian divers all 118 members of the crew were dead.
Throughout the crisis, naval officials issued a string of contradictory information about what sank the Kursk and the fate of the crew, much of it soon revealed to be untrue.
Since then, Russia has seen a series of natural and man-made disasters, many of them blamed on aging infrastructure, bad management or lax safety rules. But rather than let them dent his image, Putin has used the crises to show his command of the situation and his concern for the people who have suffered.
When wildfires swept across western Russia in 2010, Putin traveled to scorched villages, where he consoled weeping women and promised that their houses would be rebuilt. He also threatened to oust local officials who didn't do enough to fight the fires or help those who lost their houses.
This weekend, Putin flew immediately to Krymsk, where he viewed the damage and issued a series of orders to regional and federal officials. He promised that all the destroyed homes would be rebuilt and spelled out how much compensation each resident would receive.
He did not, however, meet with any of the people who were struggling to clean the mud out of their homes or who had lost an elderly parent to the flood, apparently unwilling to risk becoming a target of their anger.
Instead, Putin sent Gov. Alexander Tkachev to face the heat. When Tkachev tried to explain the cause of the flood to a crowd of people gathered in a city square, they shouted, "We don't believe you."
Ever since tens of thousands of protesters began marching through the streets of Moscow this winter chanting "Russia without Putin" and "Putin is a thief," he has had reason to be wary of people in the capital. His support, still at about 60 percent nationwide, has rested on people in places such as Krymsk who believe they can count on him to protect them.
On Monday, Putin held more televised meeting with officials. He demanded that investigators and the Emergencies Ministry give him a full report by the weekend on the causes of the flood and how its aftermath was handled.
Lynn Berry reported from Moscow. Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow also contributed to this report.