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Anger boils over for some amid record floods in Russia’s Urals

Rescuers make their way on a flooded residential area in the city of Orsk, Russia, April 6, 2024, in this still image taken from video.
Rescuers make their way on a flooded residential area in the city of Orsk, Russia, April 6, 2024, in this still image taken from video. Photo : Russian Emergencies Ministry/Handout via Reuters/Files

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At least 100 Russians asked for help from President Vladimir Putin on Monday in a city struck by the worst flooding ever recorded, chanting “shame on you” at local officials who they said had done too little to help their plight.

Russia declared an emergency in the Orenburg region near Kazakhstan after the Ural River, Europe’s third longest river, swelled several metres in hours on Friday, and burst through a dam embankment in the city of Orsk.

Swathes of Orsk, a city of 230,000 about 1,800 km (1,100 miles) east of Moscow, have been left submerged.

Late on Monday, Tass news agency quoted the press service of Russia’s Emergencies Ministry as saying flood waters in Orsk had subsided 9 cm (3.5 inches) over a two-hour period. The service warned, however, that “the situation remains difficult, though water levels have begun to come down a bit in some areas.”

People had earlier come out in front of the local administration in Orsk, some chanting “shame on you, shame on you” and “Putin help”, according to video footage from the scene published by local media.

With their properties either destroyed or severely damaged, some are unhappy with the compensation offered by authorities. Some are also unhappy that the dam embankment built in 2010 was unable to defend their city.

Orenburg Governor Denis Pasler spoke to a resident group in Orsk and said it was easy to apportion blame and turn into some sort of “unruly crowd” but that many residents had tried to help the rescue efforts and been true patriots.

“Amid the problems, other people, unfortunately, have started to appear,” Pasler said, adding he had not changed his clothes or slept for days. He called for unity.

Orenburg’s regional prosecutor cautioned citizens against taking part in mass meetings.

“Please take note that this mass event has not been coordinated with the authorities in accordance with the procedure established by law,” the prosecutor said.

After the dam embankment in Orsk was breached, Putin ordered Emergencies Minister Alexander Kurenkov to visit the area and has held several online meetings with governors of the affected regions, including Orenburg, Kurgan and Tyumen.

Some residents were angered by Kurenkov’s remarks that locals had ignored an order to evacuate a week ago. Russian media said the evacuation only began on April 5.

Another part of the dam collapsed on Monday, drone images from state news agency TASS showed. The video showed swathes of the city appeared to be a vast lake with houses submerged up to their roofs.

WIDESPREAD FLOODING

More than 10,400 homes across Russia have been flooded, with the Urals, Siberia, the Volga and central regions the worst hit.

The Ural River rises in the Ural Mountains and flows into the Caspian Sea. In Orenburg, a city of more than half a million down river from Orsk, the peak is expected there on Wednesday, Russia’s emergency ministry said.

Video from Orsk showed one man wading through flood water reaching his neck. He held his keys in his mouth and a black cat above his head.

An emergency was also declared in Tyumen region, one of Russia’s key oil producing areas of Western Siberia, Governor Alexander Moor said.

Rising water was forecast in Siberia’s Ishim and Tobol rivers, tributaries of the Irtysh river, which along with its parent, the Ob, forms the world’s seventh longest river system.

The mayor of Orenburg, Sergei Salmin, said the Ural River was expected to break the previous record of 9.46 metres. It is currently 8.93 metres.

“Absolutely everyone who is in the flood zone needs to leave their homes,” Salmin said. “Do not delay the evacuation! The situation will only get worse in the next two days.”

Tass said the governor of Kurgan region, Vadim Shumkov, issued a video late on Monday saying that 50 localities in his region, northeast of Orenburg, were likely to be flooded.

“To all those who live in all settlements along the floodplain of the Tobol River - evacuate. Do not wait for the arrival of water. It will come at night and unexpectedly, arriving quickly, in the form of a large wave,” said Shumkov.

He said the central part of the city of Kurgan, a city of more than 300,000, would be flooded along with other districts.

It was not immediately clear why this year’s floods were so bad as the snow melt is an annual event in Russia.

Federal investigators opened a criminal case for negligence and the violation of safety rules over the construction of the embankment dam in Orsk, which prosecutors said had not been maintained properly.

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