“We had no emergency services staff”. Facing catastrophic flooding, residents of an Orenburg village constructed a dam to save their homes
Павел Васильев
“We had no emergency services staff”. Facing catastrophic flooding, residents of an Orenburg village constructed a dam to save their homes
17 April 2024, 7:20

A street in Orenburg. April 14, 2024. Photo: Egor Aleev / TASS

In the early April, the Orenburg region in southern Russia was hit by severe flooding. Dozens of settlements, including Orenburg, the city of 550,000 people, were inundated. A state of emergency was declared in the region, and residents of some villages had to be evacuated due to the high water. The residential complex Perovsky, located seven kilometres from Orenburg, was also under threat of flooding. The locals decided not to wait for help from the authorities—which never came in the end—and built a dam themselves. We spoke with local resident Ivan Chernomorets about how he and his fellow villagers spent a week building an embankment and keeping round-the-clock watch to ensure it held back the water approaching their homes.

On April 8, we started receiving messages from the Ministry of Emergency Situations warning us that we were in a potential flood zone. We gathered with the residents and decided what we would do—either evacuate or attempt to save our homes and belongings. The majority chose the second option. The first thing we did was reinforce the eroded areas along the village where the meltwater was flowing. We strengthened those areas and waited for the water to come. At some point, the water started to increase, and to such a colossal extent that we could not even imagine.

The first thing we did was take the children out, gather information about the elderly and people with limited mobility—those who needed help evacuating. We took them all out of the village or advised them where they could safely wait out the flood. Most went to stay with relatives, friends, or acquaintances.

The most extensive work began on April 9, with the peak of the work on the 12th. On that day, we brought in about 200 truckloads of clay. At that point, there were about six excavators and loaders working in the village. When we realised we couldn’t cope on our own, we started calling everyone, and one of the construction companies responded and helped us with equipment and soil transportation.

Among us were surveyors who marked out the points where water could rush into the village. They helped identify the places in the embankment that needed to be strengthened first. We worked day and night. Some people, including myself, slept for only an hour or two a day.

The length of the constructed dam is about a kilometre and a half. We set up four posts along this section, with people on duty at night. We distributed duty schedules: every two hours, two or three people were on duty at each site. Then it was the turn of the next shift. This went on for a week. Those on duty walked along the dam at night with flashlights, looking for breaches. If they found a small leak or damp soil somewhere, they would call a loader to that spot, pour clay, tamp it down, and roll it to prevent the dam from collapsing later.

It’s difficult to count the number of residents who participated in all this now, but I think it’s well over 200 people. Homes and property were probably more important at that moment than going to work. People took time off work; some took unpaid leave. Everyone focused on saving the village and the houses.

Those who took part in the construction worked an average of 12 to 16 hours non-stop. We set up heating points at these same makeshift posts. Every hour or hour and a half, the girls would refresh the hot water for tea and bring warm clothes. We also quickly bought flashlights and raincoats because it rained heavily for several days. There were also frosts at times.

The local authorities did not interfere with us. I know that the village council administration has absolutely no resources: they have no equipment or specialists. Roughly speaking, there are a few women and a couple of pre-retirement age men there. How could they physically help us? If I’m not mistaken, one of the construction companies that helped us received some of the clay from the land that was allocated for emergency response. Now the issue of payment remains; they are preparing an estimate for us, and we will now try to somehow close this debt.

I don’t know if we can get anything at all from the authorities because, in fact, we were not flooded—we saved our property. Although, in fact, we may have suffered: people left jobs that fed their families. As soon as we find out what amount they will charge us, we will decide what to do. We will probably all chip in together.

We preserved the entire village. We have calculations from surveyors who predicted that at the water level approaching the village all week, 150 houses would have been affected, and possibly the kindergarten.

At one point, the police came to our dam. As far as I know (just rumours), someone from neighbouring villages for some reason thought we were building a structure that could harm them in the future. The police inspected everything; there were no violations. They were here for some time because of reports of looters. There were no emergency services staff with us.

Today, we are still on duty during the day, but probably not at night, as the water level has dropped over the past three days. And now we are not threatened by flooding. The worst that can happen now, if the water does come out of the dam, is that there will be mud on the roads. There is no water supply in the village now; people have been living without water for a week.

I’m talking to you now, but I’m probably sleeping more than talking. Because people are so physically exhausted and drained, everyone worked to the limit. I have never seen people carry such heavy loads. But thanks to unity and, probably, spirit, people were still able to finish what they started. Although initially, according to our calculations, the dam was not supposed to hold.

Editor: Dmitry Treschanin

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