Russia scrambles to contain record floods

(UPDATE) Heavy rains pounding Khabarovsk since July have swelled the local Amur River to levels unseen since the 19th century

AMUR RIVER FLOODS. A frame grab from handout video taken on August 19, 2013 from a helicopter and provided by the Russian Emergencies Ministry's department in Amur Region shows an aerial view of a flooded area in the Russia's Far Eastern Amur region. AFP / Russian Emergencies Ministry

MOSCOW, Russia (UPDATED) – Russians in the Far East on Tuesday, August 20, battled rising floodwaters as authorities evacuated more than 23,000 people from affected areas and scrambled to prevent the outbreak of infection.

Heavy rains pounding Khabarovsk, a Far Eastern city located near the Chinese border, since July have swelled the local Amur River to nearly 7 meters — a level unseen since monitoring of the area began in 1895.

The floodwaters damaged property, infrastructure and crops, displaced tens of thousands and raised fresh questions about the Russian government’s readiness to handle natural disasters.

There have been no reports of fatalities but more than 23,000 people have been evacuated so far, the office of the Kremlin’s Far Eastern envoy Viktor Ishayev said in a statement.

National television footage showed locals making their way through a flooded area by boat and a cow wading through muddy waters, submerged nearly up to its neck.

The floods have affected the Yakutia, Primorsky Krai and Amur regions as well as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast but the Khabarovsk region was hit hardest.

Over the night, the region’s Amur river, which serves as a natural border with China where it is known as Heilong Jiang, has risen by 16 cm (6.2 inches) to 673 cm.

It is expected to rise by another 40 cm over the next two days.

“According to estimates, the water levels near Khabarovsk can reach 730-780 cm on August 24-28,” the Khabarovsk city administration said.

Levels unseen since 1895

Yury Varakin, head of the situation centre at Russia’s weather service (Rosgidromet), said the water levels around Khabarovsk reached a level unseen since regular monitoring began in 1895.

“The highest water level stood at 642 cm in 1897,” he told AFP.

“In many areas the river spread out over tens of kilometers. The unfavorable situation will remain until the end of the month.”

The military have been deployed to help hurriedly erect flood defense bunds along the river, with authorities saying they have prepared 10,000 sand bags to use in case the waters breached the defenses.

Ishayev asked the General Prosecutor’s office to look into how the authorities have been handling the emergency.

“Residents in a number of areas say: ‘If you started a bit earlier then you’d have saved residential settlements.’ And they are right,” Ishayev said in televised remarks.

He indicated that some areas did not have proper infrastructure to help protect them against the floods.

“The water will be receding rather slowly,” Ishayev added.

No money, no vaccines

Authorities said many in the affected areas had been left without access to money after Russia’s biggest bank Sberbank shut its branches and ATMs.

Of the more than 29,000 people who needed to be vaccinated, only 2,000 received necessary shots even though the local authorities had enough vaccines against hepatitis A, diphtheria and typhoid fever, Ishayev’s office said.

The defense ministry sent an airlift carrying 20 tonnes of vaccines and medicine to the Far East, adding it had vaccinated 2,000 servicemen involved in relief efforts.

Another 2,700 will be vaccinated shortly, said the defense ministry, adding that it was also ready to immunize the local population.

On Tuesday officials in the Magadan region also declared an emergency due to rising water levels.

The disaster comes a year after some 170 people perished in the devastating floods that hit the town of Krymsk and its outlying areas in the southern Krasnodar region, with many people dying in their sleep.

Four officials including Krymsk’s former mayor are now standing trial on charges of criminal negligence.

A district court in the Krasnodar region began reading out a verdict on the case Monday. – Rappler.com