MOSCOW — The powerful floods that killed more than 170 people in south Russia earlier this month have left the Kremlin scrambling to minimize political damage to President Vladimir Putin, whose 12 years in power have seen a bleak litany of tragedies his critics blame on a fatal combination of corruption and negligence.
People in the worst-affected town of Krymsk say no warning was given before the July 6-7 floods struck, an allegation at least partially admitted by Emergency Minister Vladimir Puchkov.
Regional emergency officials, who had at least three hours advance knowledge of the impending disaster, say they broadcast flood warnings on local Krasnodar region television channels, despite the fact that torrential rains had cut power to much of the area.
Many of the dead were elderly people who drowned as floodwaters 20 feet deep swept into their homes as they slept, oblivious to cellphone text messages sent out by emergency services.
"This is a direct consequence of the thieving policies of recent years," said Sergei Udaltsov, who organized anti-Putin protest after the floods. "Nothing is invested in infrastructure, everything is being stolen."
Alexander Tkachev, regional governor in the flood-hit region and an ally of Mr. Putin's, defended his government's response.
"Were we supposed to get round to every single person?" he asked when reporters pressed him to explain why he failed to issue timely warnings.
A clip of the comment went viral on the Internet, fanning nationwide criticism.
Mr. Putin, dressed in black, flew over the submerged Krasnodar region in the hours after the floods, staring out of a helicopter window at scenes of apocalyptic-like devastation. Footage of his visit and his grilling of local rescue officials was aired on state television, but did little to dampen anger.
"The authorities couldn't even do a very simple thing like send a truck around with loudspeakers to warn people," said analyst Maria Lipman at the Moscow-based Carnegie Center think tank. "We have again seen an inefficient, at times bungled government operation."
The disaster has also again revealed a deep-seated distrust of government among ordinary Russians. There have been continuing allegations that floodgates at a nearby reservoir were opened to save a nearby industrial complex owned by state oil company Rosneft, causing massive flooding in Krymsk. Officials have denied the charges.
Police have arrested the mayor of Krymsk and two other officials for failing to respond quickly enough to the emergency.
"People don't trust the authorities, on any subject -- on natural disasters, or elections, or soccer," Russian journalist Oleg Kashin said in a commentary for the Kommersant FM radio station.
The Kremlin has been desperate to avoid the kind of damage to Mr. Putin's reputation that accompanied the first catastrophe of his rule, when he declined to break off an August 2000 holiday after a Russian nuclear-powered submarine sank in the Barents Sea.
Mr. Putin faced a storm of unprecedented criticism over Russia's initial refusal to allow foreign rescuers into the area. By the time Norwegian divers eventually reached the vessel, all 118 sailors on board the submarine were dead.
"It sank," was Mr. Putin's now infamous reply when asked what had happened to the Kursk by CNN's Larry King.