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Disastrous Flood Response Ignites Russian Rage Online

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Russians are slowly beginning to recover from the devastating flooding that soaked the southwestern region of Krasnodar. The floods, which struck in the early morning hours on July 7, reportedly killed more than 150 people.

It wasn't long before outrage flowed. Masha Lipman, a researcher with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, says the government had advance notice of the disaster, but didn't pass along the message.

"The flood hit at night and the government had been alerted to the risk of the flood around maybe 10 p.m.," she tells NPR's David Greene.

"The water began to rise dramatically at around 1 in the morning, and this continued through 3 o'clock in the morning. And yet, there was barely any warning whatsoever."

Pavel Konstantinov of the Moscow State University's geography faculty tells the Voice of Russia that the climate in some western areas, like Glendzhik, are generally dry.

"Nearly six times the average monthly rain fell in Gelendzhik in 24 hours, slightly less than 300mm [about 11 inches]," he said.

News about the flood — and the government's response — exploded online. In one video Lipman mentions, the region's governor, Alexksandr Tkachev, met with a crowd of flood survivors. She says Tkachev told the distressed people, "Do you think we should have gotten to each one of you?"

As The New York Times reports, the Internet has also helped coordinate volunteers for disaster relief for the particularly hard-hit city of Krymsk. The paper says young people "have arrived along with food trucks full of private donations in a city that was not expecting them."

The real-time connection is a sharp contrast to the past, the Times says.

"This activism heralds a jarring change in a country that, throughout the Soviet period, approached disaster response as a military matter and was able to insist on secrecy. When a nuclear reactor melted down in Chernobyl in 1986, for instance, Soviet citizens heard nothing at all about it for three days, and foreign governments did not know until a radioactive cloud was detected over Sweden."

Social media was also a hallmark of the anti-government demonstrations at the end of last year. As NPR's Jackie Northam reported in January:

"Russia's largest anti-government demonstrations since the Soviet breakup of 1991 are being organized and driven by a force that didn't exist two decades ago: social media."

President Vladimir Putin has been a key target of criticism, including after the flooding. Unlike the region's governor, Putin did not meet with any survivors, Lipman says.

"He flew over the region to get an impression of what it looks like after the flood," she says. "He met with officials, but not with the people."

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, then-President George W. Bush was heavily criticized for flying over devastated New Orleans without actually going on the ground. Lipman finds similarities between Russia's floods and the hurricane.

"There are certainly things that are similar," she says. "The grievances, the accusations of the authorities, of the lack of coordination, of mismanagement, of failing to do the engineering works in the past required for keeping the place safe."

Al-Jazeera reported Monday that the president "has ordered investigators to find out if enough was done to prevent so many people being killed."

Despite the anger Russians have been expressing over the past week, Lipman says to remember that "in Russia, we still have controlled politics."

Putin may be losing popularity, she says, but "still, he's got full control over the legislature, he has control over law enforcement, over courts. So his waning popularity is something that is a slow-going process.

"The outrage over the floods and the mismanagement and the inefficiency will contribute to the process, but it will not have a definitive effect. Not right now."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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