‘We didn't panic. They fooled us.’ ‘Meduza’ reports from Tulun, the city hardest hit by unprecedented flooding in the Irkutsk region
At least 18 people have died due to flooding in Russia’s Irkutsk region, and 17 more have been reported missing. The city of Tulun has been hit hardest of all: there, the Iya River flooded its banks, destroyed a dam, and submerged the district capital almost entirely, leaving more than 40,000 people with their hometown underwater. The water pushed entire cars and houses along the city’s streets. Some roads were washed away entirely by the deluge. Tulun residents are blaming government officials for failing to warn them about the record-breaking floods, which Irkutsk scientists have connected to the global climate crisis. Meduza correspondent Andrey Pertsev traveled to Tulun and spoke with victims of the flood.
“We jumped out as we were. We lost everything.”
“This is all that’s left of five carfuls of my lumber,” says Tulun retiree Valentina, looking down under her feet. A few logs are lying on top of a fallen fence that now plays the role of a bridge to her half-destroyed home. Similar ad-hoc structures are all that remains on her entire street.
Valentina is trying to save what’s left of her property on her own. “Two bathhouses got swept away, greenhouses, and the barrels got carried way over there,” she counts, enumerating her losses. Then, she nods in the direction of her garden: “Look what they sent me over here. Shchors Street came over to Peschanaya Street.” She is pointing toward the top half of a building formerly located on a different street, perhaps a store or a barn. Now, it’s rising above her potato crop. Other gardens have been treated to a visit from the neighbors’ cars.
Fortunately, there’s good news, too: Valentina’s beloved cat was saved. “I wanted to get her out right away. She got very frightened, and she scratched me badly. But she survived somehow. Probably lost one of her nine lives,” says Valentina, trying to crack a smile.
“Rumbling, crackling! The dogs started howling, and the pigs started squealing. We jumped out as we were. We lost everything. I didn’t even save my ID papers!” adds Anastasia, who lives one street over. She and her husband, Innokenty, are walking around the foundation of their home trying to find at least some possessions that remain whole. “We would even be happy to find a bowl at this point. We didn’t take anything with us,” she explains. The street where the couple lives has been washed away completely. “And there were good houses here, new houses or ones that were recently remodeled with good roofs and gates. And look, the gate is all our neighbors have left,” she continues.
Beyond the still-intact gates, water glistens. A group of local children splashes about where houses used to be. Innokenty has already heard from local officials that he shouldn’t expect any compensation: many Russians are officially registered at an address where they do not live, and Innokenty is registered in a microdistrict that avoided the wrath of the elements. Tulun District head Mikhail Gildenbrant says differently, however. He argues that residents of neighborhoods that were destroyed will be able to prove their residency in court using testimony from their neighbors.
By this point, the water in Tulun has begun to recede, and in some neighborhoods, it has disappeared completely. People are carrying binoculars near a bridge across the Iya River that saw a burst of media attention after a pile of houses became trapped on its upstream side. They are using the binoculars to try and spot their own homes in the hope that they might be able to save at least some small number of their possessions. Some carry nets or buckets in their hands to catch passing objects or scoop water out of the now stationary buildings. “I took a look myself to see whether it might have caught my dacha,” Gildenbrant himself admits.
People reach their cell phones out of passenger-side windows to take photos as they drive over the bridge on the Siberia Highway. The road was reopened on July 2, the day I arrived in town. Nonetheless, the truckers waiting in traffic outside the city of Zima almost 95 miles from Tulun are skeptical. “Highway patrol told us that we’ll be sitting here for at least 4 more days,” one of the drivers says. His colleagues are watching yet another video of the bridge and the houses jammed against it. Rumors have spread among them that up to 80 percent of the buildings in Tulun have been destroyed.
From Zima onward, more and more trucks are parked at the side of the highway. By Tulun, they form an unending chain.
People and dogs
In some neighborhoods, all traces of flooding are gone. Here, you can find tents with aid volunteers, military field kitchens, and even an armored car with the Russian flag painted on the side. The volunteers are cooking porridge and soup on gas burners and giving the food to anyone who asks for it. They have clothing, potable water, and pet food as well. A volunteer named Alexander, an elderly man wearing a black shirt and dark sunglasses, says humanitarian aid got here from Bratsk and Krasnoyarsk. There is no shortage of people passing through to have a bite to eat or replace the clothing they have lost.
“Everything sank. I’m standing here before you in someone else’s clothes!” A woman named Zoya does not hide her emotions. She has received half of a large box of dog food from the volunteers: after the flood, many local dogs were left alone as their owners sought safety in temporary shelter points or with relatives.
Natalya, a volunteer with the animal welfare organization Zoozabota-Tulun, is also concerned about the orphaned dogs. “City Hall has an agreement with a company that catches stray animals. The company shoots dogs but says it’s just shooting tranquilizers and taking the unconscious animals to Irkutsk. We checked: the dogs never make it there. And now there are more animals on the street that could be killed,” she argues.
Zoya adds that the local government isn’t helping people, either. “Nobody’s feeding us other than these folks [the volunteers]. My nephew is driving his own cleaning vehicle to wash off our street. And what are the bureaucrats doing? They even took all the food for themselves to City Hall, and only businesses are helping us,” she concludes, walking off to feed the dogs.
Many local residents agree with Zoya. “They told us everything would be fine, and the water just kept coming. Only the first responders were still working. We all sat on the second or third floors of our houses and waved our arms so the boats could come and save us,” said one woman who declined to give her name.
Who’s to blame?
The catastrophe has already bred rampant rumors: looters are an especially popular topic in the city. There has been a small number of actual lootings, Tulun District head Mikhail Gildenbrant admits, but he says police and guards driving boats now have the situation under control.
Simultaneously, posts spreading on social media claim that there may have been a sudden release of water at a storage facility in Irkutsk, but the facility is located at a lower elevation that Tulun, and there is no body of water connecting it to the city. Several Tulun residents have attempted to convince me that the flood was triggered by excessive efforts to put out forest fires. Valentina, the retiree who saved her cat, agrees with that explanation. “These big fires broke out, and the government started shooting off their cannons to get rain to fall, and now look what they’ve done,” she fumes.
Gildenbrant argues that the flooding was caused by unusually heavy rainfall and that it would be wrong to blame the government. He believes the threat of flooding became clear as early as the middle of last week. “People said themselves that nothing would happen — we’ll just take our stuff upstairs, and that’s it. And now they’re saying that they weren’t warned,” he said.
Scientists from Irkutsk State University have a different perspective: on July 1, geography professor Inna Latysheva published a statement on behalf of the university’s physics and meteorology faculty to say that the floods were indeed caused by heavy rain, but that rain didn’t come from nowhere. The university’s team of scientists found that an extremely rare current of warm, humid air from the Pacific Ocean joined other atmospheric forces to cause the excess rainfall. The scientists linked the anomaly to “observed global and regional climate change” and warned that similar irregularities are likely to continue causing extreme weather events in the area.
Those root causes have not been a subject of conversation on the ground, however. On July 2, Irkutsk Regional Governor Sergey Levchenko arrived in Tulun and told journalists that first responders had not warned government officials about the rising water levels in the area. Levchenko visited a local school that had been repurposed as a shelter for those displaced by the flooding, but he appeared tired and stopped speaking multiple times to take answer phone calls.
Anastasia argues that she heard calls over the radio to continue going about business as usual and avoid panicking. “We didn’t panic. They fooled us. We would have just taken all our things out and been done with it,” she says in frustration.
Valentina also does not recall any warnings from the government about the oncoming floods: “We even went out to admire the water as it rose — we thought nothing would get to us. Or that it would be like 1984 at worst. Then I looked, and there was a lot of water. I took my husband, who’s disabled, to the other side of the street. We watched and waited for it to start killing. And it just streamed in.”
English version by Hilah Kohen