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Work on the Russky Bridge in Vladivostok. November 24, 2020.

Abandoned and forgotten Russia’s far-eastern city of Vladivostok remains paralyzed nearly two weeks after a major ice storm

Source: Meduza
Work on the Russky Bridge in Vladivostok. November 24, 2020.
Work on the Russky Bridge in Vladivostok. November 24, 2020.
Sergey Shevchenko / / Scanpix / LETA

Nearly two weeks ago, on the night of November 19, freezing rain began falling on Russia’s far-eastern Primorsky Krai. The storm left tens of thousands of people in the region without electricity and one person died. The consequences of the freezing rain are still being felt — the bridge connecting Russky Island to the mainland remains closed, leaving other islands in the archipelago virtually cut off from the rest of the world. For Meduza, local journalist Ekaterina Tkachenko reports on the situation from the regional capital, Vladivostok.

The freezing rain that left tens of thousands of Vladivostok’s residents without power, water, and heating, came down on the night of November 19. The city administration’s handling of the fallout from the storm (which has yet to be fully dealt with) has already been subjected to a check by the Vladivostok Prosecutor’s Office. The prosecutors concluded that the city wasn’t “properly” prepared for the emergency situation, that officials responded inconsistently, and that “the process of connecting houses to utilities” has been delayed.

Nonetheless, in the city’s mainland areas, most of the problems with utilities have been eliminated, though Internet and connectivity interruptions persist. Electricity has been restored even to residents of the most-affected Pervomaisky District — due to the freezing rain that fell on two transmission towers, people there were left without power for more than a week. The area had more outages planned for December 2–3, so that power engineers can replace the temporary towers and restore the regular power supply. 

The situation is better in the city’s other districts, but work is ongoing. For example, utility workers are still cleaning the frozen cables on the Zolotoy Bridge, which connects Vladivostok’s center to the Churkin Cape. To prevent ice falling from the cables from damaging passing cars and injuring pedestrians, the city’s main thoroughfare — Svetlanskaya Street — is closed regularly because part of it passes under the bridge. Due to closures and uncleared roads, the city is jammed with traffic from morning until evening. And residents from nearby houses complain that the measures the local authorities are taking aren’t helping — ice from the bridge is still falling on the roofs of their homes. 

Ten days later

On the morning of Saturday, November 21, frozen cables also shut down the Russky Bridge connecting mainland Vladivostok to Russky Island, which is home to a Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) campus and several villages home where around four thousand people live. Since the storm, the city administration has promised to open the bridge repeatedly, but keeps extending its timeline. As a result, the bridge remains closed and work on it continues — as of the morning of December 1, climbers had removed the ice from just 118 of the bridge’s 168 cables.

When exactly the bridge will reopen remains unclear. After the freezing rain, it emerged that the specialists from Freyssinet, the French civil engineering company that installed the cables, didn’t anticipate the need for de-icing — despite the fact that the company also works in Scandinavian countries with cold climates. Now, these specialists will have to return to Vladivostok, to analyze how critical the loads on the bridge supports are and put forward a solution for preventing ice from forming on the cables. They’ll also assist in developing technology, which, in the future, will make it possible to clean off the cables faster.

In the meantime, the island is connected to the mainland by a ferry, which transports fuel and special equipment to Russky Island and brings people from the island to the mainland — including local residents, students, and instructors from the university. In the near future, four landing crafts from Russia’s Pacific Fleet are set to start taking passengers, as well, up to 150 people at a time. A landing craft made several test runs on December 1, but a regular schedule has yet to be established. Local residents have already begun sharing their impressions of the trip on social media: “It smells really strongly of exhaust fumes, so it won’t be kind to the asthmatics.” 

The majority of the villages on the island have power now, but at least four of them are still without electricity. This includes Kanal and Pospelovo — which are nonetheless connected to the mainland by ferries, — as well as the remote villages of Voyedova and Rynda. 

Russky Island resident Denis Yasinkov tells Meduza that the other villages only received stable electricity two days ago, when Primorsky Krai Governor Oleg Kozhemyako came to the island. According to Yasinkov, the government ordered utility workers “not to sleep until the lights come on” — as a result, electricians even worked at night, by flashlight.

At this point, generators bearing Emergency Situations Ministry stickers were brought to the island — the administration issued them to local residents in need according to a list compiled earlier. According to Yasinkov, the generators weren’t in the best condition: “[There’s] a torn hose here, crappy gasoline leaking there, some are difficult to start, but, as they say, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” 

Yasinkov says that the power grids on the island are effectively being rebuilt: prior to the freezing rain and the ensuing emergency, complaints from local residents about power failures were ignored. “This disaster revealed a big problem — every cloud has a silver lining,” he underscores. 

According to the Primorsky Krai’s government, it’s not just the fallout from the freezing rain that’s preventing the complete restoration of power on Russky Island, but also some local residents: officials maintain that an “unknown perpetrator” cut down a section of cables supplying electricity to the villages. Electricians planned to remedy the situation by December 1. 

Ice on power lines. November 19, 2020.
Yuri Smityuk / TASS / Scanpix / LETA
Work on a transmission tower. November 22, 2020. 
Yuri Smityuk / TASS / Scanpix / LETA
Trees covered with ice and branches felled by the storm in Vladivostok. November 25, 2020.
Alexander Khitrov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

For now, residents from villages without power are relying on the three soup kitchens operating on the island for their meals. Meanwhile, students are ordering grocery deliveries to the university campus from REMI (a major supermarket chain in Russia’s Far-East) and the grocery chain Samberi has set up a pavilion selling hot food. McDonald’s, which is preparing to open its first locations in Vladivostok, also decided to provide food for some of the island’s inhabitants and delivered a batch of burgers to the village of Pospelovo. 

Into an ice age

The worst situation is on Popov Island, where more than one thousand people live — it’s located off of Russky Island, across the Starka Straight. The freezing rain damaged power lines on Popov Island beyond repair. A significant portion of the island is still without electricity. The Vladivostok Prosecutor’s Office has stated already that the city administration is to blame for not updating the island’s infrastructure a long time ago. 

Oksana Machechi, whose family lives on the island in the summer, tells Meduza that currently her relatives are on the mainland. People are afraid to leave for the island in the winter: they can get stuck there due to weather conditions and those who don’t make it back to the city can lose their jobs. According to Oksana, all of the local residents who have found themselves in difficult situations have been taken in by neighbors, friends, or relatives. “Those who have a stove that can be heated, that you can cook food and heat water on, are in the best position,” she says. 

Natalya, another local resident (whose name has been changed at her request), tells Meduza that her house had its heating restored a day and half after the freezing rain. That said, Natalya’s home still doesn’t have power and when it will come back on remains unknown. 

“On the eighth or ninth day [after the power outage] they began to distribute humanitarian aid — four gas cartridges and four candles. I don’t even know how they distributed them, by family, house, or apartment. Some were given gas stoves, probably — I asked around and found [one], but only after ten days. Some built bonfires in their yards to cook things. Some were rescued by generators,” Natalya says. 

According to the island’s residents, local electricians have been working for days on end to restore the electricity. But in conversation with Meduza, locals add that the ferry that brought the electricians special equipment for the restoration job only arrived on the island a week after the storm. 

Meanwhile, the residents themselves can’t get off the island: unlike on Russky Island, no one has organized additional boats for them. The only ferry that usually goes to Popov in the fall has been sent to help the inhabitants of Russky. Local residents feel they were “abandoned and forgotten” after the disaster. “Now people are getting on some private boats, but I can’t even imagine how much they’re paying for it,” one local resident explains.

Natlaya notes that due to the lack of a ferry there’s hardly any food left in the stores on Popov Island. There’s also difficulties with medicines — and the only hospital is closed for renovations. As a result, in the two weeks that the island has been disconnected from the mainland, three residents have been hospitalized: a ferry made an emergency trip to the island to pick up two of them (it didn’t take any ordinary passengers), while the third was taken away by an air ambulance.

There is no reliable mobile phone connection there either. “The situation certainly threw us back a couple of hundred centuries, [or] into an ice age. It’s funny, on the one hand, but [on the other] it’s wildly scary,” Natalya says. If everything goes to plan, all of the residential buildings on Popov Island will have their power restored by December 3.

That being said, Vladivostok is expecting warmer weather and rain on December 7, followed by another cold snap. It was this very combination that led to the freezing rain on November 19. Commenting on the likelihood of a repeat of this situation, the Primorsky Hydrometeorology Center’s head, Boris Kubay, said it’s “practically zero.” But last time local forecasters warned residents about the freezing rain just a few hours before it began.

Story by Ekaterina Tkachenko

Translation by Eilish Hart 

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