Sink or Swim

 Report from flooded villages in the Altai Mountains  06/10/2014, 14:30
Sink or Swim
Photography by Natalia Pugaeva

On 30 May, a state of emergency regime was declared in the Altai Republic and Altai Krai regions, where rivers burst their banks due to prolonged heavy rain. Towns and tourist camps have been flooded, and a number of road bridges have been destroyed. Sib.fm’s correspondent visited the disaster zone.

A man stands at the side of the road, looking at the water that has flooded a meadow to his right, and sadly tells someone over the phone:

«40 head of cattle have already drowned. We tried our best, you know the rest.»

Several calves and a horse quietly chew grass on a small remaining patch of dry land. It’s too late for them. On the following day, the river will be seething there.

Residents of the village Maima in the Altai Republic spend Friday evening near flooded Kirov Street. The other part of the village is not yet under water. Nearby, sopping wet rescued dogs run around and whine quietly.

«The water started to rise last night. The Emergencies Ministry were driving around yesterday, warning people, but no one left.»

«The water will keep on coming, and the dam in Chemal will burst,» someone says nearby.

«And what will happen then?»

«Then we’ll have a problem. All the water from the city of Gorno-Altaisk has already arrived here.»

People in an inflatable boat rescue another dog. Someone drives towards the houses in a tractor.

«My daughter and her whole family evacuated from there, came to my house. Maybe we’ll be floating by morning too, because the water’s already approaching our lane.

They say that the dam has burst. Who knows what will happen.»

«Berdnikov (Aleksandr Berdnikov, acting head of the Altai Republic — Sib.fm comment) said, ’Get on the move, everyone with a car should get away’.»

«He can say that. He’ll go and withdraw some money from his card and buy everything again. What have we got to spend?»

«He said we should run to higher ground. Easier said than done. It’s cold and the land is damp there.»

«My daughter has four children; the youngest is a year and a half old. Where should we go with the kids? I’ll be under water and they will too.»

At 10pm the crowd is going nowhere. The dogs stop whining and start to bark without a moment’s respite.

«Old people are sitting on their roofs,» says a young man. «My friend’s grandma is up there. He went to get her in a boat and went missing. He’s probably stayed with them.»

«They’re being forced to leave, then signing papers to say they won’t go anywhere,» adds a girl.

«I was driving here today at lunchtime, everything was still dry.

If the dam bursts now — five hours and we’re f***ed. Just imagine, there’ll be a 7 metre high wave. It will cover Maima in a flash. Shit creek.

There was some rain and the glaciers began to melt in the mountains. That’s how it all started. Normally they stay there all summer.»

«My dad’s on the roof. Guarding his property.»

«I’m going to collect my things. The water’s already inside the fence.»

«I should probably go and pack my belongings too. Climb up the tower over there and have a look,» the group parts ways.

At night, the residents of Maima are urgently evacuated. 545 houses are in the flood zone. Water flows onto the main road.

«How we were supposed to know? We put our things on the sofa and that’s it,» complains a girl on the phone. Now, no one wants to laugh or even talk.

In Gorno-Altaisk, the water level really has gone down over the last 24 hours. I’m told this by some young people who decided to drink beer on the banks of the raging river. Here, bridge piers were washed away on Communist Avenue. Traffic was stopped, but was soon allowed to restart on the undamaged part of the bridge.

Ground floor residents have been evacuated in the last day. The detatched private houses are already under water.

By 6am on May 31, 14 built-up areas in the Altai Republic had been flooded; 1448 private houses, inhabited by 2916 people, found themselves in the flood zone.

20 road and pedestrian bridges have been damaged.

On the same day, the federal highway was covered by the rising Katun River near the village of Manzherok. Cars were stuck in a several kilometre long traffic jam. Some people are towed along the forest bypass road by a tractor.

Tourists and locals stop by the river, which is ready to demolish everything in its path, to take pictures and share the latest news.

«I’ve heard awful things. A jeep was driving over a bridge in Chemal when it was washed away by the water. The driver escaped, but two passengers were killed. All the debris flew into the hydroelectric power station. People are saying that it will get even worse. It’s been raining for two weeks non-stop. The snow is melting in the taiga at Lake Teletskoye.

«My friend’s boat was carried away from its mooring. Bridge supports have been washed away in Kyzyl. It’s impossible to get to Lake Teletskoe now. Yesterday, everything was blocked by riot police.»

The villages of the Altai Krai will continue to flood at the weekend too. Exhausted residents gather by the main road in the village of Beryozovka.

«Are you a private citizen?»

«I’m a journalist.»

«Record this. I’m Aleksandr Sergeyevich Trofimov. This is our house on the left-hand side of the road, which started to flood first, before lunchtime yesterday. No one warned anybody, no one said anything: neither the head of the local administration, nor the radio.

People weren’t informed at all. Around noon, the houses started to flood, and by evening the situation was already desperate. At night, our side went under water completely. About 200 houses.

Now it’s going across to the other side. The Emergencies Ministry didn’t budge, they all sit around getting pissed. They were brought here without boats, they didn’t have anything. A local man moved people in his motorboat.

The highest point on our side came at 3am. All the cattle went under water. A lot of people’s pigs drowned. I’m glad I managed to drive my cows into the mountains. We were told that there would be a second peak at nine o’clock. They’re blowing up the dams so that water doesn’t build up, but it’s all coming here to us.»

«An emergency was declared, and today they just took school pupils to the next village to sit an exam,» says a woman.

«The kids didn’t sleep all night; they were freezing in the attic, but the exam wasn’t called off. They weren’t even allowed to finish and were taken straight out of the exam because the school had been completely flooded in the meantime. They waded out of it.»

«I’ve heard that the village will definitely be washed away. We could evacuate to the club or the preschool now, but we don’t have anything. No blankets, no mattresses, no rations. Come with your own blanket, by all means, but if not you can lie on the bare floor.»

«That’s it. As they say, it’s sink or swim. Nobody will lift a finger to help those in trouble.»

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