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Seeking help for a flood in Russia

Little-known event destroyed 80 villages, woman from area says

Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2001

To citizens of Russia's Sakha Republic, relief means 3,200 tons of flour, 120 tons of canned meat and 10,000 pairs of boots.

Unprecedented spring flooding in the Sakha Republic has received little publicity worldwide, but it has left 64,000 people homeless along the length of the Lena River, according to Anastassia Bozhedonova, a republic representative.

Bozhedonova is visiting Juneau and Fairbanks asking for help. The four Rotary clubs she spoke to in Fairbanks donated $2,000 for relief.

Longer than the Yukon, the Lena flows from south to north, from forest to tundra. Record-breaking floods began May 15. Water and displaced building-size chunks of river ice destroyed 80 villages, including 366 schools, hospitals, libraries and pharmacies, she said.

Bridges, telephone and electric lines, water filtering stations and roads were destroyed. Topsoil was carried away.

"The spring (breakup) began earlier than usual, and rain waters in a neighboring region flooded into the territory," Bozhedonova said. "The river still had thick ice on it, and ice dams backed the water up."

The government bombed some ice dams and dynamited others, but then the debris would form dams further downstream, she said. "Ice came onto the banks and destroyed all in its wake."

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Sakha's largest city, Lensk, in May and made a decision to sell $30 million in diamonds to repair flooded parts of that city. But $30 million is only a drop in the relief bucket when the total loss is estimated at $250 million.

Bozhedonova is working with the Northern Forum, a nonprofit international organization that undertakes emergency and disaster response activities. During the summer of 1998 the forum was instrumental in addressing spring flooding in the Sakha Republic. Similar efforts were undertaken during the winter of 1998-99.

"When a disaster like this happens in the United States, the banks fly open," said Priscilla Wohl, deputy director of the Northern Forum's Anchorage office. "But the president's response was, shall we say, more modest," she said.

"The extent of the damage and devastation in Sakha is such that I don't know that it is humanly possible to repair everything. If we compared this to Alaska, it would be like repairing two-thirds of Fairbanks and every village on the Yukon. They are hamstrung by the short season. It's remote, and there are no roads," Wohl added.

Some of the 64,000 homeless are living in tents donated by the government and on "campuses" set up in schools still standing. Others are camped in the rubble "like nomads," Bozhedonova said. Outhouses flooded. Brick ovens collapsed. Root cellars first flooded and then froze, leaving provisions trapped in ice.

"When we tried to dry our fur boots, the fur fell out," she said.

When ice tipped houses over, even furniture could not be salvaged.

"Our furniture has to be imported from Poland and Bulgaria. Most of it is pressed wood, and it swells when it is under water. Personal libraries, photo albums, warm clothes, bedding all is gone," said Bozhedonova, a French language teacher recently trained as a sociologist.

"I hate to be begging; I would rather be giving," Bozhedonova said. "But the situation is really terrible for people who have lost their life's earnings."

Floods in 1998 destroyed Bozhedonova's home village, taking her family's horses, home and possessions, such as her mother's prized refrigerator.

"She lost the work of a lifetime," she said. "She had a stroke two weeks afterwards and died three months later. Deaths like hers aren't seen in the statistics because they don't happen the same day, but people die from these tragedies. They lose hope for the future. One neighbor committed suicide and another died of a heart attack."

Donations for 2001 flood relief can be mailed to Northern Forum, Sakha Flood Account, Wells Fargo Bank West, Box 196127, Anchorage, AK 99519-6127. Bozhedonova can be e-mailed at abozhedo@northernforum.org.

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Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire. com.



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